Marriage and American Gothic by Sean Gibson

An often made interpretation of American Gothic is that the man and woman standing in the painting are married. However, according to Wanda Corn the artists intention was to draw a Spinster, a woman “whose moral propriety and excessive duty to family kept her at home caring for a widowed parent” and her Father.1 Despite Grant Wood’s intentions, most people do not see an elderly father with his daughter, but rather a rough and oftentimes miserable married couple. Some see the personification of an American farming family, hard working, durable, and handy,2 while others see a critique of rural Americans: close-minded, anti-intellectuals insisting on tradition.3 Some people even imagine the ‘wife’ in the photo is being abused, due to her hardened and vacant appearance. But these interpretations all assume that the man and woman in the painting are married, which has had an impact on both the discussion around the painting as well as the parodies spawned from it.

Parodies of the painting showing famous married couples (fictional or otherwise) are plentiful, such as: Marge and Homer Simpson, Barrack and Michelle Obama, and Jack and Wendy Torrance (from The Shining) to name a few. There are also parodies that use the painting to say something about marriage in society as a whole. On the left are two such parodies; in the upper one the painting is used to talk about divorce, while in the later it is used to celebrate the passage of gay marriage laws. In both the point of the parody is not just to use a recognizable photo in order to boost popularity, but also to have is say something about the changing state of marriage in America. The woman in the painting changed into a more modern outfit and is shown leaving the frame to symbolize rising divorce rates, or the man and woman are replaced with two gay women to show solidarity. In these specific recreations and many more, the painting is used a symbol for marriage, whether it be defending traditional marriage from a changing society, making a statement about the state of marriage in America, or simply replacing the couple with another famous married couple. These adaptations change the meaning of the original iconic painting, making it less about the hardiness Midwestern Americans and more about their relationship to each other. Indeed, this interpretation of American Gothic makes it more than an American icon; it makes it an icon specifically for marriage in America, and all the societal problems surrounding it.

1. Wanda Corn,  The Birth of a National Icon:Grant Wood’s American Gothic (Chicago:The Art Institute of Chicago, 1983) 267.
2. Corn, The Birth of a National Icon, 263-264.
3. Noah Charney, “Light Laced With Darkness: American Gothic Art.” Observer. March 08, 2017. Accessed March 15, 2018.

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