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Rural Landscape goes to the Whitney

Today’s post comes from Claudia Ashworth, class of 2019 and Art Center Student Docent

Grant Wood, American, 1892-1942
Rural Landscape, c. 1931
Oil on panel
Gift of Ellen Douglas Williamson, class of 1927

From March 2-June 10, the Art Center’s painting Rural Landscape (1931) by Grant Wood will be on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of their retrospective, Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables. The exhibition consists of an extensive overview of Wood’s work and illuminates his less-known content.

Grant Wood was born in 1891 in Anamosa, Iowa, and spent the majority of his life in the American Midwest. He received formal artistic training at the Art Institute of Chicago where he primarily studied metal work. His interest shifted to painting when he visited Europe from 1918-1922 and studied Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and 15th-century Flemish work. When Wood returned to the United States in the 1930s he collaborated with others to create the Stone City Art Colony near Anamosa, which was meant to provide artists with economic opportunity during the Great Depression. It was during this time period and exposure to other Midwestern artists that Wood developed a disdain for the perceived elitism of American modernism and constructed a movement that emphasized the “grassroots” importance of his local culture. He believed that this movement and his work were meant to “provide a truly indigenous regional style.”

It was during the later half of Wood’s life that he began to create landscapes that presented his perception of the rural Midwest. Rural Landscape is a small oil painting that depicts the rolling hills of a pastoral landscape. The brushstrokes are thick and blend together the trees, pastures, and light, creating a blurry illusion of rural America. This work is smaller and less detailed than some of Grant’s larger landscapes displayed in the exhibition, which leads us to believe that it was most likely a preliminary sketch. However, Rural Landscape is far less fantastical than these larger paintings such as Spring Turning (1936), which depicts what Roberta Smith calls a “Magic Realist landscape” as its view of rolling grassy hills hovers between “art and illustration.” As Grant began to paint at a larger scale, his perception of his geographic and cultural area become both more detailed and imaginative.

Grant’s fantastical depictions of the American Midwest offer an interesting duality, as he  both presents a section of the country he believes should be taken as a serious part of American identity while also giving it a “cartoonish” effect that makes the paintings slightly comical. Rural Landscape represents the beginning of this dualism, as it depicts the realistic foundations on which Grant built his more inventive pieces.

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