- Look at the original image and do a semiotic analysis. Describe its contents (denotation) and possible meanings (connotation) as you did in Part Three.
We are asked to look at the image and do a semiotic analysis, so I will start with the denotation, or the literal description.
The painting shows a rather bald man wearing glasses and holding a pitch fork, with a blonde woman next to him. Both of them are stood in front of a house, with a red building off the the right of the painting.
The man is facing front with his eyes focused towards us, while the woman is stood slightly behind him and has her head turned towards the right of the frame. Her eyes are focused all the way to our right, and it may be possible she’s looking at the side of the man’s face. I am more inclined to say that she’s looking at something out of the picture though, as her head doesn’t seem to be turned far enough to really be looking at him.
He is wearing blue dungarees over a white and green striped, collarless shirt, and has on a heavy looking black/navy jacket. She is wearing a black/navy dress with a white collar and cameo brooch at the neck. Over the dress is a brown patterned apron with light coloured decorative edging.
The house looks to be white wood and has an upper window that’s more decorative than the lower ones, with navy curtains/blinds that have a gold pattern on them, similar to that of the woman’s apron. The house has an outside porch to the left which has some plant pots on it and, possibly, a green-framed door with a rolled up slatted blind over it. At the peak of the roof, there is some kind of pole with a green ball on it and we can’t see the top of the pole (a lightning rod?).
On the right of the image, there is another building with a brown roof and red walls. It looks like the same kind of style as the house, but we can’t see most of it.
In the background there are trees with very rounded canopies, taller ones to the left of the painting and shorter ones to the right. There’s also a very faint spire at the back left.
Having looked at the painting from a literal point of view, I will now think about the connotations, or the secondary, underlying meaning.
My first impression of the painting is that the man is a farmer and that they are on some kind of small farm. I am drawn to this idea by the man’s dungarees and the fact he is holding a pitchfork. The red building in the background looks like a barn to me. I have never actually seen a farm or farmer that looks like this, but I have seen media and film images depicting them in this way.
I immediately thought the woman to be his wife, but perhaps she could be his daughter. The fact she has a cameo brooch at her neck, and he is wearing a heavy looking jacket, gives me the impression that they are not depicted in their natural state, but are ‘dressed up’ for this portrait. I don’t imagine he would be farming with the coat on, and her dress and brooch look more like her Sunday best than something she’d wear around a farm on a normal day. Having said that, both of them have aspects of their normal attire – he in his dungarees and her in her apron.
If you were to split this up into signifier and signified, it would be something like the following:
Signifier: Pitchfork and dungarees
Signified: The man is a farmer
Signifier: Red wooden building
Signified: This a barn, therefore they must be on some kind of farm
Signifier: Black jacket and cameo brooch
Signified: The couple are dressed up for the portrait
Signifier: Black jacket and black dress
Signified: A sombre moment. There is no fun or excitement in this couple’s life right now.
Signified: The woman does the kind of work that would get her clothes underneath the apron dirty.
Signifier: Neutral facial expressions
Signified: This is an unemotional moment – the couple are neither happy nor sad to be in this position. Perhaps this is signifying that they accept their life as it and have no particular feelings either way about it. It could also be said that they look miserable, grumpy, or stoic.
- Extend your enquiry by researching the original context of the image. Why was it produced, where and when was it originally located, and how might audiences have interpreted it?
American Gothic was painted by American artist Grant Wood in 1930. He was born and raised on a farm in Iowa and was travelling around the small Iowa town of Eldon, when he came across what was then know as The Dibble House while out on a drive. He supposedly asked to stop, and made a sketch of the house. He was apparently amused by the ‘pretentious’ first floor window and an idea came to him to find two people who might live in such a home.
The male model in the painting was Wood’s Dentist, Dr. B.H. McKeeby, and the woman is his sister Nan Wood Graham. The couple posed separately for the painting and neither ever stood in front of the actual house. Often assumed to be husband and wife, Nan has always insisted that they are actually meant to be father and daughter.
The piece was entered by Wood into a competition run by The Art Institute of Chicago, where it came in third and won Wood $300. The Art Institute ended up buying the painting and it has been it’s main home ever since. The painting has travelled extensively around the US over the years, and even came to Europe for a year in 2016/2017.
The question as to why it was produced has an ambiguous answer. The reasons Wood chose this house and this couple are more clear – as already mentioned, he found the house itself interesting, and the people were plucked from his imagination as the type he thought might live there.
The painting began to gain attention and was featured in many newspapers. When it eventually made it’s way into the Cedar Rapids Gazette, locals of Iowa, locals believed he was making fun of them by depicting them as “pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers.”
Contrary to the belief by even some critics that the piece was satirical, this letter that Wood wrote to a Mrs Nellie Sudduth in 1941 has some clarification – namely that Wood ‘…did not intend this painting as a satire.’, and had tried to produce a portrait of the kind of people he was familiar with from growing up in the region, and that they are ‘solid and good people’. He also says that this doesn’t negate the fact that they have ‘…their faults…’.
Despite the locals not being pleased with the depiction of the couple in it, the painting was received mostly positively, but the meaning continued to be ambiguous, with Wood doing nothing to clear any of the questions up. Indeed, it could be this that has made it’s popularity so pervasive – you can see in it whatever you want. It could be an archaic and satirical caricature of 1930s Iowa natives, or ‘a depiction of steadfast American pioneer spirit.‘ Despite now being 90 years old, and still hailed by many as the most well-known piece 20th Century American art, American Gothic continues to be talked about, visited, sent on tour, and, of course, parodied in all sorts of ways.
Grant Wood was one of a trio of artists whose works organically started a movement known as American Realism, which embraced ‘techniques and stories that were more connected to an American folk tradition and traditions of Old Master painting.’