Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

American Gothic: Grant Wood

There are certain paintings that are recognizable by most everyone, true icons of the art world: Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch's Scream, for instance. American Gothic is among this elite group, but few can recall the name of the artist.

In 1930, painter Grant Wood achieved unexpected fame with American Gothic, his painting of a pitchfork-wielding farmer and a stern, black-clad woman posed before a Victorian farmhouse. Trivia: the models for American Gothic were Grant’s sister and his dentist. It is one of the most reproduced and parodied artworks in history. Even those who know the name of the painter of American Gothic are unlikely to know that the soft-spoken artist who painted it was a deeply-closeted gay man.

Wood’s homosexuality was something of an open secret in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where an attitude of “don’t ask – don’t tell’’ allowed a small gay and lesbian subculture to exist in peace, so long as it remained practically invisible. Respected figures in the community, including prominent businesspeople and a local school principal, shielded Wood from scrutiny and encouraged his artistic aspirations. Thus Wood’s earliest vocational activities were not in farming, but in jewelry design, interior decorating and various theatrical pursuits. David Turner, owner of a funeral home in Cedar Rapids and a member of one of the county’s founding families, acted as Wood’s first patron. Wood and his widowed mother lived for years rent free in the mortuary’s vacant carriage house, formerly a storage facility for horse-drawn hearses.

For a man with a secret, sudden celebrity was a mixed blessing. Major national media outlets hinted all too broadly at the hidden subtext of his life, describing him as “a shy bachelor’’ who maintained “a discreet silence about marriage,’’ while making pointed reference to his high-pitched voice and affinity for the color pink – all too obvious allusions to his homosexuality.



Fear of exposure seems to have led Wood to adopt the down-to-earth public persona of America’s farmer-artist. Possessed of pudgy physical appearance, he routinely donned denim overalls for interviews and photographs (see above) and once ludicrously proclaimed, “All the really good ideas I’ve ever had came to me while I was milking a cow,’’ even though he hadn’t lived on a farm since he was 10 years old. Although Wood had studied in Paris and Germany, he downplayed his worldliness and put the accent on his midwestern farmhand persona, albeit somewhat embellished and fabricated.

Several times exposure of Grant’s homosexuality seemed imminent. In the late 1920s, he was blackmailed by a young man over their relationship. MacKinlay Kantor, who later became a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and screenwriter, wrote a description of Wood in a gossip column for the Des Moines Tribune-Capital that played up Wood’s bachelorhood and feminine taste and appearance. Wood’s being outed would have threatened not only his reputation but his income, as well, so Wood was cautious and circumspect in public. As the bartender in a Cedar Rapids watering hole Wood favored put it, “Wood was only gay when he was drunk.”

In Grant Wood’s Arnold Comes of Age (1930), a painting of a slight young man staring into the distance against a fall landscape, the image might be understood as one of Wood’s signature depictions of traditional America, were it not for the nude boys bathing in the corner of the portrait (click image to enlarge). The bathers are so subtly incorporated into the picture and the title so nondescript that the work seems to simultaneously suggest and repress the possibility of same-sex desire. Arnold Pyle, Wood's assistant, had just turned 21 when this portrait was made.Wood had been Pyle's eighth grade art teacher and went on to become Pyle’s mentor and longtime friend. Tragically, in 1973, while returning from a Grant Wood Art Festival, Pyle was killed in an automobile accident. One should note here that the somewhat overweight Wood had a taste in men that seldom varied – his ideal types were dark-haired, slender young men, and Wood surrounded himself with same for the rest of his life.

His mother’s death in 1935 created a crisis. No longer able to justify bachelorhood with the excuse of filial obligation, Wood entered into a disastrous marriage with a woman much his senior, the former actress Sarah Moxon, to the surprise of his friends and family. It was a loveless, unconsummated, unhappy, and brief marriage – the result of a sort of gay panic. Worse, he fell in love with her handsome, 20-something son from a previous marriage, installing the young man in their home, lavishing money and attention on him. Wood also kept a secretary, Park Rinard, another slightly-built, dark-haired young man with whom he was also in love, again unrequited. All this was too much for Sara, and their brief marriage ended acrimoniously.

Wood left Cedar Rapids for Iowa City, where he taught art classes at the University of Iowa. Lacking the network of friends who had previously supported and protected him, he was denounced as a homosexual in a formal departmental complaint lodged by five colleagues. The matter was eventually hushed up, and Wood was allowed to keep his job, but the ordeal wreaked havoc on his health, and he developed a severe drinking problem. One of Wood’s accusers was H.W. Janson, whose “History of Art’’ later became a standard college-level textbook. Janson vindictively omitted Wood from this canonical guide to art history.

Wood died in 1942, at the tender age of 50, as a result of pancreatic and liver cancer.

2 comments:

  1. Grant and his sister Nan were family friends. I never heard about his being gay, but of course, Nan would not have spoken about it. My grandmother took care of Nan until her death. I was close friends with Nan, and Grant's secretary, Park Rinard.

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  2. Small point of fact: the house in "American Gothic" is a Gothic-style farmhouse, not a Victorian.

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