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Dean George is the Marketing Specialist and Content Creator for Dental Insurance
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"Goth" Bless the Heartland Dreamers

May 10, 2016

By Dean George

Picture this: four score and six years ago this August, a 39-year-old artist driving through his native state of Iowa spotted an unusual whitewashed house in a small town. The house made such an impression on him that he decided to use it as a backdrop for an American Heartland scene he imagined.

One might say, artist Grant Wood was “drawn” to the white framed wood home measuring 504 square feet. 

Built in the Gothic style known as Carpenter Gothic, or Rural Gothic, a prominent feature that caught his trained eye was a high, medieval-arched window on the second floor.


BACKGROUND: Grant Wood had spent part of two decades wandering around Europe in places like Paris and Munich where he studied Northern Renaissance art by 15th century Flemish artist, Jan van Eyck and 16th century Flemish artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Prior to the birth of Northern Renaissance art, Italian Renaissance art dominated the art world with its colorful, romanticized oil paintings. By comparison, Northern Renaissance art focused more on simplicity and minute details. Its practitioners painted what they saw from direct observation rather than what they imagined and idealized.

When the prodigal painter son returned to his Iowa roots after wandering Europe seeking inspiration, his artistic eye became fixated on simple, ordinary things at home: objects like fabric patterns and shapes like the Gothic-style window in the simple house in Eldon, Iowa he drove by that fateful August afternoon.

Wood quickly drew a 3” x 3” sketch on the back of an envelope before returning to the Cedar Rapids loft located aboard a funeral home he shared with his widowed mother and younger sister.

Because the small Iowa house was going to be the backdrop for his painting, Wood “pictured” two models anchoring the painting’s foreground: a farmer and his daughter. For the farmer, the artist chose his 62-year-old dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby. Wood had a serious sweet tooth and had spent a lot of time studying McKeeby’s face and hands while being treated for cavities.

McKeeby had just the look Wood envisioned – a long face, thin mouth, strong hands and a countenance so stern it might give Santa Claus pause.

Wood wanted to use his mother Hattie as the female model, but he worried that having her pose for hours would be too difficult. Instead, he asked his 32-year-old sister to put on her mother’s apron, cameo pin and a humorless look that implied there were chores yet to be done. (Many mistook the female in Wood’s painting for the farmer’s wife, but Wood confirmed years later in a private letter that Nan was portrayed as a daughter.)

Upon finishing the painting, Wood had successfully captured the look he sought – a farm family that was industrious, honest and serious. He submitted his work to a 1930 competition sponsored at the Art Institute of Chicago where he won a bronze medal and a $300 prize. The painting became an overnight sensation after dozens of newspapers around the country published his picture.

As often happens with great works of art, people often had different impressions of what the artist intended. Many thought the painting lauded Midwestern values of integrity, hard work and a determined “git-r-done” attitude. Some considered it clever satire, while others viewed it as mocking Midwestern sensibilities.

Whatever initial impression people had of the painting, as the Great Depression worsened, the portrayal of the farmer and his daughter became emblematic of American grit, resourcefulness and determination. Today, 86 years after it became public, American Gothic is one of the most recognizable American paintings in history.

Over the years, it has been parodied in everything from Broadway shows like The Music Man to television shows like Green Acres, marketing campaigns, sales promotions and selfies. Today American Gothic resides at the only home it’s ever known, the Art Institute of Chicago.

POSTSCRIPT: According to the book, Grant Wood: A Life, the dentist McKeeby only agreed to pose for American Gothic under the condition of anonymity. Reportedly, Wood promised the rendering of his image would be unrecognizable, but in reality the resemblance between the pictured farmer and the small town dentist was obvious to all who knew him.

In real life, McKeeby was known as an affable “live wire” who loved to cruise around town in a red sports car. Why not? He was a respected dentist in the smiles business!

Wood’s sister Nan, died in California in 1991 at the age of 91. Grant Wood died in 1942 of pancreatic cancer one day before his 51st birthday.

Who said reading about dental subjects is about as exciting as watching paint dry? Thanks for reading Agent Straight-Talk. For a picture worth a thousand words, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, or LinkedIn.

Sources:,, Grant Wood: A Life,
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Copyright 2016, Bloom Insurance Agency, LLC  

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