It is a quiet Saturday afternoon, sunny and quite pleasant in Eldon, Iowa. On a small plot of land stands a modest, white, farm house with a backdrop of fields and trees and family homes across the street. The house is simple enough with a small porch, white paneling, and a gothic styled window on the front of the house, much like the kind of windows churches have. The window might seem a little out of place with respect to the rest of the home and its small town surroundings. It is this very window that drew in artist Grant Wood in the 1930s to inspire his masterpiece American gothic, one of the most iconic paintings — not only in America — but in the world today.
The house has a rich history, besides being inspiration for a work of art. The iconic gothic window was added to the simple farmhouse in 1881 by Catherine and Charles Dibble, the original owners and builders of the house, according to americangothichouse.net. In the 1800s, it was heard of to put gothic windows on one’s home with the style of architecture dating back centuries and exclusively for churches. This kind of window was not seen on homes, especially rural farmhouses.
No one knows for sure why the Dibbles decided to put a gothic window on their home. Grant Wood himself thought it was strictly for decoration, according to Sarah Camp, and administrator at the visitor center for the house. There is another theory though on the house’s website. “The window’s purpose is to move furnishings either into or out of the upper floor, as the inner stairway with its tight corner, is not suitable for moving large pieces of furniture such as a bed or dresser,” it says. “Among the struggles of life and work, this was one way that the Dibbles were able to add a little beauty to their everyday lives,” the a sign in the museum exhibit for the house suggests. Whatever the case, the window certainly attracted artist Grant Wood.
In 1930 Wood was visiting John Sharp, another artist and friend, who gave Wood a tour of Eldon. The two happened upon the house and Wood was instantly intrigued with the gothic windows. He then sketched the house and began his masterpiece. The models Wood used, depicted as a farmer holding a hayfork and his wife with their stern expressions, never met each other prior to this painting, and did not meet until 10 years after his painting was completed. The woman was Woods sister, Nan, and the man was his dentist, Camp explains.
Today, guests can visit this historic home as well as its visitor center next door and learn about the house, the painting and Wood. There is a small museum exhibit, a media room that plays documentaries, and a gift shop. Guests can also parody the painting by dressing up in costumes provided by the center to recreate their own American Gothic image, or they can bring their own costumes for their own interpretations.
The big attraction that brings thousands of guests to the house each year is the ability to recreate the picture. Sarah Camp says that “[American gothic] is the second most parodied painting in the world, and people get really creative in their own recreations.”
The museum exhibit about the house does have more information about the painting and its cultural importance, facts about the house, information about Woods life, and shows other parodies done. “The many interpretations of American Gothic have made it an integral part of our culture, not just the U.S., but also worldwide,” an exhibit plaque says.
Camp says Wood submitted his American Gothic painting in an art contest through the Art Institute of Chicago. “He [Wood] whipped something together and lo and behold it became this huge thing and that’s how he became known,” she says. During the 1920s and 1930s, the regionalist movement — the genre of the painting depicting farm life — was popular in American art, and says she speculates that the timing of Wood’s painting is what made it so popular. “If he tried to do the painting today it probably would not have been as popular,” Camp says.
Other fun things to do in Eldon, Sarah Camp says, includes visiting their Carnegie Library, the Rock Island Train Depot, and for lunch or dinner Camp recommends Chommy’s Bar and Grill, which serves American cuisine. Ultimately, “Parodies show a diversion from the status quo and often depict society from the time of their creation,” a plaque says at the entrance of the exhibit, making this house and American Gothic forever engrained in art history.