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Grant Wood’s life story, as he told it to the press and as many of his biographers have repeated it, went like this: Born in rural Iowa in 1891, Wood showed artistic precocity from an early age, flirted with bohemianism, turned his back on his benighted region under the sway of H. L. Mencken, traveled to France, grew a hideous beard, produced derivative Impressionist paintings, returned home, shaved off the beard, discovered a “native” subject matter and style (most famously in his 1930 painting American Gothic), and became America’s “artist in overalls.” Well adjusted, hard working, and clean living, the mature Wood was everything the stereotypical artist wasn’t. Most of all, he was masculine—“a sturdy, foursquare son of the Middle West,” as an admiring critic put it. The art, like the artist, was solid, straightforward, and robustly American.
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Steven Biel is executive director of the Humanities Center at Harvard and a senior lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University. His most recent book is American Gothic: A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting (2005).more from this author >>
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