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Seeing Double by Aubrey Prestwich

16 May 2023

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930, oil on beaver board, 78 x 65.3 cm, the Art Institute of Chicago, Image: the Art Institute of Chicago

A mere one hundred years ago, an eternity and a blink, the world was emerging from the crisis of The Great War. America was enjoying a newfound combination of prosperity, growth, and illegality: prohibition and politicking created a glamorous world of intrigue. Cities were growing; businessmen were making and spending their fortunes. Farmers moved to the city for factory jobs. Rapid industrialisation, internal migration, and immigration from abroad had created a new cultural landscape. American-ness, American-ism was unsettled and distant, much like the far reaches of the American Southwest. At this moment, in the 1920s and 30s, American artists decided to interrogate a truly American style of art. Educated in Europe, the artistic elite was dissatisfied with the current state of affairs at home. They started painting in distinctive styles, searching for an effect that captured what it meant to be American at this moment. Two painters and two double portraits provide possible answers to this question of identity. One, American Gothic, was painted by Grant Wood and acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago after entering a juried exhibition in 1930. The other, The Twins, was an E. Martin Hennings piece painted in 1923 and acquired sometime shortly thereafter by connoisseur Harrison Eiteljorg. Today it resides in Indiana at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. Hennings and Wood have strikingly similar biographies. Each knew they wanted to be an artist from a young age. Each travelled to Germany to receive artistic training after local schooling at the Art Institute of Chicago, though they did so about ten years apart. Hennings was a commercial artist who summered in Taos before moving there permanently, thanks to generous patronage by Chicago businessmen, the mayor's son leading the club. Hennings would go on to join the Taos Society of Artists, aligning himself economically and stylistically with other Midwestern-turned-Southwestern artists, Blumenschein and Sharp among them. Wood taught painting in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and started the Regionalist movement, an artistic style characterised by flat fields of colour and striking shadows. He staunchly held onto the facade of an Iowa farm boy, dressing in coveralls and short-sleeved shirts whenever it wasn’t too improper. Each won multiple prizes for their entries into the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual juried exhibitions.

E. Martin Hennings, The Twins, 1923, oil on canvas, 36 x 36cm, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. Image: the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.

The Twins, sitters that Hennings worked with for six weeks, have been identified as Jake and George Baumgartner, passers-by coming through New Mexico on a mule wagon. Lanky and old, a notion of Western-ness now typified by actor Sam Elliot, the two are unassuming. They would have simply passed through Taos had Hennings not hired them. Yet, the two and their wagon star in two works Hennings produced in the summer of 1923. In The Twins, the Baumgartners sit atop their uncovered wagon, staring off into the middle distance. One has a pipe and overalls, the other suspenders and khakis. The wagon and their lean, woody frames take up most of the picture plane while mountains linger below the wide-open sky. Twin hats, twin shirts, twin walrus moustaches, twin gazes off into the distance as the two let the reins go slack. The painting depicts a contemporary reality: Taos was full of moneyed, itinerant visitors looking to see the landscape and those who inhabited it. Though the pair are old, they are attired timelessly, and the nostalgia that the painting evokes comes from the sitters’ age rather than their environment. The image strikes an authentic chord: these are real people, with their own clothing and wagon, embarking on a commonly uncommon trek. The same sky and mountains stand over New Mexico today, though the wagon, mules, and brothers are long dead. The painting was likely sold to Harrison Eiteljorg by a local New Mexico art dealer, and he owned it until he donated his entire collection to the museum that bears his name. He considered it ‘one of the best.’ On the other hand, American Gothic is a manufactured scene designed to evoke a potential reality. When Grant Wood came across a farmhouse in rural Iowa that struck him as particularly old-fashioned, he decided to find a couple to paint in front of it. His dentist and sister obliged. The two sat in his studio separately, attired in clothing as old-school as the house in the background. He holds a pitchfork; she glares sideways in her Sunday best: calico apron and Victorian cameo. Though most of the house is obfuscated by their bodies, it is as much a presence as they are in the composition. At the time of painting, farmers used mechanised equipment for hay management. Fashionable women, Wood’s sister included, wore their hair in mercerised curls instead of smoothed back into a low bun. Unlike The Twins, whose relationship is foregrounded by the title and physical similarity of the sitters, the relationship between the man and woman in American Gothic is entirely unclear. The painting’s ambiguity drew critical ire: many East Coast critics received it as a satire, a comment on Midwestern backwardness. Iowan housewives, however, expressed their disappointment with the painting. They fought to prove they dressed well and used mechanised equipment via a letter-writing campaign. The piece now rests in pride of place at the Art Institute of Chicago. It is a classic of American art, and a wholly manufactured image. The portraits play with truths and fiction, with identities ascribed and acquired, with the nostalgic American hegemony that is so easily remembered. One received the admiration of a single, dedicated man before going on public view; the other has spent its entire life being examined by the public eye. Both were collected for their ability to articulate a specific idea of two people: one happened upon, one manufactured, both American. Yet, this American identity is narrow. It is white; it is rural and rugged. It exalts nostalgia and ambiguous or uncanny relationships. In looking further off the canvas, some details fill in. The men who created these works were white Midwesterners depicting white Midwesterners, both truthfully and with clever, Oz-like deception. If this notion of American identity is so tenuous that it has to be entirely manufactured by people who learned their art on a different continent, perhaps it was never real in the first place. But the portraits say something about how America wants to remember itself, which is equally interesting to consider, given the multivalent identities of Americans today. One is not better than the other; the nostalgia they navigate is merely one in a series of self-conscious representations American artists have put forth to describe a complex and confusing identity, that of the American.

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