Five Facts About Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ That Your Art Teacher Forgot to Mention

You’ve been there, sitting in art class, as you professor lectured on Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” The first time, it was an Art History class and he lectured on the role in American Art History of Grant Wood. “American Gothic” was studied in your composition class, as you listened for hours about the three vertical lines repeated throughout the painting.

Finally, once you thought you were done with “American Gothic,” Grant Wood returned in your European Art History. “Not again! He’s an American,” you thought. But the instructor did not listen to your quips. No, he had to go on for three hours, discussing Europe’s influence on Grant Wood. “American Gothic” features a blue sky, similar to paintings of the Virgin Mary, and the people in it have long faces, like Madonna. Finally, that was the last you heard about this painting.

That was, of course, until you realized how amusing Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” is. It is among the most parodied pieces of artwork, along with Milton Glaser’s I Heart NY design. “The Muppets,” “Bevis and Butt-Head,” and “Time” have all made parodies of “American Gothic.”

The work has inspired many strange renditions after it was painted. But, here are five interesting facts about “American Gothic,” from Grant Wood’s piece, itself. These little insights are contained within the painting, and your professors neglected to mention them.

Sister, Would You Model?

Wood wanted his mother, Hattie, to model for the masterpiece, but she proved to be too frail. Since his mother wasn’t physically able to model for him, Grant Wood turned to his sister, Nan. For the portrait, Nan wore her mother’s apron.

Mom’s Cameo

Even though Hattie did not model for the artist, she made a cameo appearance in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” The female portrayed is wearing a pin on her collar. That was a pin worn by Nan while her brother painted. It is a portrait of their mother, Hattie.

The Dentist

Over his lifetime, Wood came to know his dentist, Byron McKeeby, quite well. This is likely because Wood was known to sweeten his morning coffee with half a cup of sugar and to put sugar on his lettuce. As he spent many hours in McKeeby’s chair, Wood became enamored with his hand. He once commented, “This is a marvelous hand. This has strength. This has character.”

Byron McKeeby modeled for Grant Wood in “American Gothic.” As your art professors likely pointed out, the man’s hand in the painting anchors it. Without his hand at the bottom of the work, the viewer’s eye drifts. This hand is Wood’s rendition of his dentist’s hand.

The Pitchfork

Undoubtedly, you are sick of hearing about the pattern of three vertical lines in “American Gothic.” Grant Wood is also tired of hearing about them.

The most prominent vertical trio is, obviously, the pitchfork. However, this pitchfork, many quipped is inaccurate. Complaints quickly reached Grant Wood. “American Gothic’s” man is holding a three-pronged pitchfork, but most pitchforks are four-pronged. As a Midwesterner, Wood should have known this. As your art professor would happily remind you, the painting would not work with a four-pronged pitchfork. However, this was not an acceptable reason for most farmers. Wood, instead, claimed the pitchfork is a hay-throwing pitchfork, and they only have three prongs.


Few people could place Eldon on a map. (Hint: It’s in Iowa). Most have never heard of the town. Yet, thanks to Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” Eldon, Iowa is home to one of the most famous houses in the world.

As he was driving through this small town, Wood noticed an odd home. It’s most peculiar feature was a window on the second floor. Its high arch came from the gothic style. This house inspired the “American Gothic” by Grant Wood.

The Mystery of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”

Instead of finding out who lived at the Eldon home, Wood asked his mother, dentist and sister to take the residents’ place. Ever since, America has been studying this Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” from every possible angle. Professors lecture on it. Humorists parody it. Artists admire it. There is an abundance of detail, from the skilled to the strange, in this painting. But, one thing we will never know: In Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” what is hidden behind the arched window’s curtain?

Source: Lunday, Elizabeth. Mental Floss, “Grant Wood’s American Gothic.” Jan.-Feb. 2012, p. 25-28.

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