Saturday, December 31, 2011
American Mona Lisa: A Profile of Nan Wood Graham
(Theme: Grant Wood’s sister, Nan Wood Graham, shortly before her death sat down with writer Larry Engelmann and told him what she remembered about posing from one of the America’s most familiar and beloved paintings.)
In the spring of 1930, Iowa-born Grant Wood, one of America’s most productive and popular artists, decided to take a brief break from his work. He drove from his home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to the home of a former student in Eldon, Iowa, for a weekend visit. The journey was nearly 120 miles across the gently rolling patchwork of farmlands of central and south Iowa between the Cedar River to the Des Moines River. In Eldon, on a cool and quiet Sunday morning in early April, Wood first came upon the house.
It was a small, simple frame structure in some ways not unlike hundreds of other houses he’d seen around Cedar Rapids. But this one had a single and remarkable distinguishing – even eccentric – feature that set it apart. On the second story was a single gable with an inset narrow Gothic window. Wood was fascinated by the house and he told his former student that he wondered what kind of people might live in the house. He circled the block once and stopped at the curb in front of the house. He climbed from his car and walked to the front door of the house and knocked. A young couple answered. Grant told them who he was and what he did and asked them several questions about the house. The invited him inside and showed him around. He went to the second floor and looked out through the Gothic window. He stayed inside only a few minutes and then thanked the young couple and returned to his car. From the back seat he retrieved several tubes of paint and a composition board. He made a quick oil sketch of the house – a front view of the structure as he saw it from his car. When he was finished he put the painting in the passenger seat and drove home to Cedar Rapids.
During breakfast the following morning, he told his sister Nan about the house and how it continued to fascinate him. He told her he had been disappointed by the residents of the place. They just did not fit his perception, he said, of the sort of people who should live in such a unique house. She asked him to describe the people who should live there. He’d do better than that, he said. “Nan,” he told her, “I’ve decided to do a painting of the kind of people I think should live in that house. I thought about it last night. I have a woman in mind, Nan, but I’m afraid to ask her to pose, because, you know, like all the others, she’ll want me to make her look young and beautiful. And I’m not going to paint her beautiful in this picture. So she’ll be disappointed.” The woman he had in mind, he told his sister, was “an old maid from Cedar Rapids.”
“If not her,” Nan asked him, “whom can you ask to pose for the painting?”
There was a long pause before Grant answered his sister’s question. “Nan,” he said finally, “if you are willing, I really want you to pose for me for that picture.”
He showed her a sketch of his idea for the painting. He pointed out how he would paint the house in the background and, standing in front of it would be the man who lived there – in his painter’s imagination – and the man’s daughter standing beside him. For the man, the father, he said, he would ask the family dentist, sixty-three year old Dr. Byron McKeeby, to be his model. A few years earlier, Dr. McKeeby had traded Grant some dental work – a bridge – for an oil painting by Grant of a bridge over a stream.
McKeeby said many times how much he liked Grant’s work, and the young painter was certain the dentist would pose for the picture.
Grant explained to Nan in detail the “look” he wanted to achieve in the painting. He told her he wanted the woman – the daughter – in the picture to have a “plain, old-fashioned appearance” and he wanted her to have “a stern expression” on her face. Nan and Grant talked at length about the woman in the painting, what her life might be like and her relationship with her father.
Nan agreed to pose for her brother’s new work. That afternoon she went to a local store in Cedar Rapids and picked out materials to make the dress she planned to wear in the picture – somber brown and black material. “We were supposed to be small-town people,” she told me that she and her brother had decided. “We were really not supposed to be farmers, but just small-town folk. We would own maybe a cow to milk, and we would have a little garden to tend for ourselves. But we’d keep all we grew and not sell anything in the market. Grant and I talked and talked about this. The man in the painting – who was supposed to be my father, would so some tinkering around the house, we decided. We tried to determine what the mother and wife would look like, but we just could not agree on anything. So we decided that the man was a widower. Now, when we talked about this, we tried to imagine what expression would be on the face of the man and his daughter. When we finished talking about this, I posed.
“It was really difficult because Grant was always joking. And both of us would break into laughter, and then we would have to start all over again. It was hard to go from being Grant Wood’s sister and joking with him in the studio to being a farmer’s daughter standing in front of a house.
“When I was posing and I lost my concentration, Grant would always draw me back to the work at hand by begging, ‘Come on, now, Nan. I’m trying to do your face and I really need you to look sour.’ So I looked sour, the best I could. And so he painted me.”
Grant painted in his studio which was on the second floor of a carriage house behind a larger house that was the home of John B. Turner, the local mortician. The first floor of the carriage house served as a mortuary. Grant had painted a portrait of Turner a year earlier, in 1929. Grant had been living with his mother and his sister in a cabin he had built for them at the end of the streetcar line in Kenwood, an outlying district of Cedar Rapids. Turner invited Grant to build a studio on the second floor of the carriage house. When Grant worked late into the night and missed the last streetcar home, he slept overnight in the studio. Turner suggested that Grant move into the place. So he brought Nan and his mother, Hattie Weaver Wood, to the carriage-house studio and they transformed it into a home. Nan married in 1924 but she continued to live with her mother and brother in the carriage house because her husband was confined to a local veteran’s hospital with tuberculosis.
“We all lived upstairs,” Nan remembered. “And downstairs Mr. Turner kept the corpses. Now mother was a very unworldly person. And those were the days of Prohibition. Living above those corpses really spooked my mother. One night, I remember, she heard a terrible racket downstairs.
“Mother was convinced somehow that one of the bodies downstairs had come back to life and was trying to get out! She was, of course, petrified by the thought. I went to the window to try to see what was going on. I saw that it was just one of the locals who had consumed a little too much Cedar Rapids bootleg juice and was having a bad reaction to it. That used to happen quite often. Men would drink some concoction that was distilled somewhere in Cedar Rapids and they’d go absolutely nuts for a while. We used to call it ‘the Cedar Rapids heebie-jeebies.’ Well, the man who had it this night kept falling down and running into the doors and walls and yelling and cursing. I tried to tell mother that it was nothing more than a man with the heebie-jeebies. But she did not believe me. She was convinced it was a dead man coming to get us. Poor, poor mother!”
The part of the second floor that Grant used as a studio had a belfry that let in sunlight. So Grant painted with natural lighting during the day. Every morning, after breakfast, Nan posed in the light from the belfry for her brother. In the evening he took the painting in his car to McKeeby’s home and painted the father-figure for the picture by lamp light.
Grant had painted Nan hundreds of times before he began work on American Gothic. He told her that she was his favorite model. From the day she was born on July 6, 1899 – when Grant was seven years old – he had used her as his model. Grant showed his work to Miss Emma Grattan, the local public school art teacher. Grant was her favorite student. She was the first to recognize his extraordinary abilities and encouraged him to continue his drawing and painting.
“Grant worked very hard at painting,” Nan recalled. “It really was work for him. He put in long hours, starting in the morning after breakfast and sometimes painting until 3 or 4 in the morning. He was particularly serious when he was painting American Gothic. We joked about it a lot when I was posing, but it was a very serious work. Neither of us had any idea of course that it would someday be considered a great painting and that it would receive the attention that it did.
“It took Grant about six months to complete the painting. When he was finished he decided to call it ‘American Gothic.’ And when he was done he submitted it to a contest sponsored by the Chicago Art Institute.
“We did not know what to expect once it was in Chicago, but then one morning we read in the local newspaper that the painting had won second prize in the competition. We were having breakfast and were reading the paper like any other morning and then Grant saw the story about the contest winners. It was not the prize alone that was important to Grant. There was also the fact that it was accompanied by an award of $300. But if Grant accepted the money, the Institute owned the painting. We talked about it and Grant decided to accept the money and the terms. Those were Depression years, remember.
“When we first read the news about the prize, I remember, we thought it was a misprint or a mistake. It seemed just too good to be true! But then a reporter came to the house and said he wanted to interview Grant because of the Chicago prize. Only then did we dare to believe that it was true. We invited him inside and he proceeded to interview Grant and take his picture.
“For a while after that, Grant and I laughed about all the things that people said about the painting. The farmers all around Iowa got mad at him – real mad –for painting them that way. Many of them wrote pretty mean letters to the editor of the Des Moines Register – and I mean really mean letters –critical of Grant. One man wrote in and said that if young men believed that farm women actually looked like the woman in ‘American Gothic,’ then all the young men in Iowa would avoid farming and take up bootlegging. Another one said ‘That woman’s face would sour milk!’ Oh, they wrote all kinds of things like that. And they never said anything about the man in the painting – only the woman. They just picked on me.
“After that some of them apparently concluded that writing a letter wasn’t enough. They started to call the house. They said – shouted in a few cases – awful things and then hung up. And a few even threatened Grant’s life! Late one particular night a man called to say he had seen ‘American Gothic’ and he was going to come over to our house right that minute and bash Grant’s head in. Mother, of course, got pretty upset at that. I can tell you that Grant, too, was not unconcerned about the threat. But the man never did come by, thank God!
“It was after that call Grant said to me, ‘We’ve got to do something about this, Nan.’ So he had me write a letter to the Des Moines Register and answer all the other letters. I wrote that I was Grant’s sister and that I had posed for ‘American Gothic’ and I was proud of it.
“Well, after that, the tone of the letters and the calls changed. Suddenly all of the farmers became Grant’s enthusiastic fans. They’d invite him out to their farms and then pick out scenes they wanted him to paint – usually with them standing in the middle of the painting. All the farmers, it seemed, wanted to be in their very own ‘American Gothic.’ But Grant just didn’t go for that. The farmers brought him all kinds of things after that – bushels of sweet corn or tomatoes, and they left them at the studio door in order to win his favor. But Grand never did another ‘American Gothic.’
“That painting was supposed to represent a father and his daughter. But many of those who complained about it thought it was a farmer and his wife. I was 30 at the time of the painting and Dr. McKeeby was 65. Dr. McKeeby lived for a long time after that. And he was always a little bit disappointed in ‘American Gothic.’ He said that he thought Grant made him look too old. But Grant told me that was how it always was. The women wanted to look beautiful in a painting and the men wanted to look young. He said he could just never make them happy.
“Grant felt that I had been hurt quite unfairly by the criticism of his painting. And he felt real bad about that. So he promised to paint a realistic portrait of me. He said he didn’t want people to think that I really looked like the girl in ‘American Gothic.’ So he did a portrait for me in his studio. And it was quite realistic.
“That was in 1933. He painted my picture in oil on Masonite. Today it is owned by the University of Wisconsin in Madison. We talked about the portrait for some time before he actually began to paint, about the look that he wanted to portray. When he did it, I held a baby chick in my left hand and a ripe plum in my right hand. I had gone, you see, to the 10-cent store on the day before Easter in 1933, and they were selling baby chicks. So I bought two and carried them home under my fur coat. It was a cold day and one of the chicks died on Easter Sunday. After that I was always holding on to the other one. So Grant wanted me to hold it in the picture because he thought the color of the chick repeated the color of my hair. And he wanted me to hold the plum because it repeated the color of the curtain behind me in the painting. And so that is how Grant painted me.
“I wore a polka-dot blouse in the portrait. I could not get any material with polka dots anywhere in Cedar Rapids at that time. So Grant took an old bed sheet and mixed up some colored ink. He cut a potato in half and used it to stamp the ink onto the material. Then I sewed the blouse. We didn’t decide exactly how I’d pose until we tried several different angles.
“Some people thought Grant’s paintings were political. But those people are wrong. Grant was never political. They saw things in his pictures that just weren’t there. And people called him everything from a Communist to a National Socialist to a flag-waving patriot.
“Then there were a lot of critics who were utterly convinced that no good art could ever come out of Iowa. And so they said and wrote awful things about Grant. Even after he died in 1942, they were just meaner than ever.
“One critic said Grant’s paintings were worthless. And I remember another critic said that they should all be flushed down the toilet. Then somebody else wrote to the newspaper and pointed out that one of Grant’s paintings sold for $400,000 and he said he thought that was an awful lot of money to just flush down the toilet!
“Fame followed me after Grant did ‘American Gothic.’ People came up to me in the grocery store or on the street and they’d ask, ‘Say, aren’t you the woman in ‘American Gothic’? One time a woman came up to be at a bazaar in Southern California and asked if I was the woman in the painting. Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather at that, since 56 years had passed since I’d posed for ‘American Gothic.’
“I started to lose my sight sometime around 1968. It came very gradually. And about 1986 I became totally blind. But that’s all right. In my mind, I can still see Grant and his paintings.
“I can tell you that over the years the critics changed their opinion of Grant. Now they like his paintings. In fact, some of the critics have called ‘American Gothic’ the ‘American Mona Lisa.’ And I have to agree with them. It really is the ‘American Mona Lisa.’”
Author’s Note: I interviewed Nan Wood Graham in Palo Alto, California, in the spring of 1988. Nan was born on July 26, 1899 and passed away on December 14, 1990. “American Gothic” remains in the collection of the Art Institute of Cicago. In the autumn of 2005, Grant Wood’s “Spring Plowing” was sold to an unnamed buyer at Sotheby’s for $6.96 million.
Photos of Nan Wood Graham provided by Debbie Beilstein
Nan, Clara and Frank Wood
Seated left on couch, Nan Wood Graham.
Nan Wood Graham and her husband Ed Graham. 1955
Frank M. Wood in front of "Woman with Plants," a portrait by his brother Grant Wood. This was a portrait of their mother.