Grant Wood's Life
The Story of Grant Wood
Grant DeVolson Wood was born on a farm four miles
east of Anamosa, Iowa on February 13, 1891. He was
the second child of Francis Maryville Wood and Hattie
DeEtte Weaver Wood.
Grant’s father was born in Virginia in 1855 and was
known by his middle name, pronounced “Merville.”
Maryville’s parents, Joseph and Rebecca Wood, came to Iowa with their children and former slaves in a
covered wagon after the Civil War. They bought farmland near Anamosa for three dollars an acre,
built a home, and farmed the land. They had seven children, three of whom died in infancy. Maryville was the oldest.
The Woods were a Quaker family, but since the nearest Quaker church was in Whittier, they attended most Sundays at the Presbyterian Church in Anamosa. It was here that Maryville met Hattie Weaver. He was the superintendent of the Sunday school; she was the church organist.
Grant’s mother was born in 1858. Her parents
DeVolson and Nancy Weaver (originally from New York
State), ran an inn on the outskirts of Anamosa. The inn was the overnight stop for the stagecoach, but
was destroyed by fire. With the destruction of the inn, Mr. Weaver ran a sorghum mill, but this too was fated to fire. He was then elected sheriff of Jones County and would later move to Cedar Rapids to own an automobile dealership. Just like Maryville, Hattie was the oldest of four siblings.
Both Maryville and Hattie were well-educated, quiet, calm and shy in nature. They married on January 6, 1886. The bride’s parents gave the newlyweds land and an elegant set of parlor furniture. Hattie, who had acquired a bit of savings after eleven years of teaching country school, bought a luxurious Wilton velvet rug to go with the lovely furniture. Maryville, meanwhile, went into debt for the construction of their new home. It was in this home that their four children were born: Frank in 1887, Grant in 1891, John in 1893 and little sister Nan (short for Nancy) in 1899.
Grant Wood spent his first years on the farm near
Anamosa, where he learned about farm chores, care
of animals, gardening, and the beauty and sounds of nature. He also began to draw—the first occasion
occurring in the farm cellar. He was sent to the cellar as a punishment for some wrongdoing, and while
waiting, he found a piece of cardboard from a cracker box and sketched a hen setting on many eggs.
“My first studio was underneath the oval dining room table which was covered with a red-checkered cloth.” ~Grant Wood
From 1898 to 1901, Grant attended Antioch rural school about a mile and a half walk from the farm. The small rural school had an entry hall where coats were hung, a large room with a pot-bellied stove, and rows of desks for the students. Eight grades were taught in this one room—all by the same teacher. In school Grant sometimes struggled with geography and arithmetic. When called upon, the teacher would find him either squirming in his desk or daydreaming.
Outside, on the other hand, Grant was very observant. So observant, in fact, that at the ripe old age of 10, the local newspaper wrote that “Grant Wood reports that he has found fifty-five varieties of birds in his neighborhood. His communication on this subject is very interesting and shows that he is an observing, thoughtful, wideawake boy.”
Move to the City
Grant Wood’s time on the farm came to a sudden end when his father died on
March 17, 1901 at the age of 46—Grant was just 10 years old; his siblings were 14, 8 and nearly 1 1/2. Years later Grant came back to these memories via his paintings.
In September 1901 Hattie packed up the family and moved them to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where she purchased a home at 318 14th St NE. Grant met some neighbor boys who would become lifelong friends—one of whom was David Turner. He attended Polk School, where he felt a bit out of place. Fortunately, he had a sence of humor that allowed him to laugh at himself and make friends.
He didn’t completely abandon his farm heritage with the move to the city, as he proceeded to help his mother with the gardening, earned money milking the Lord’s cow, and took care of the Woitesheck’s horse.
But the move to the
city also brought
with it more artistic
Gratten, art supervisor
for Cedar Rapids schools, recognized Grant’s talent at an early age. She often excused him from his
regular classes so he could go to her office to work. He was given paints and brushes and allowed to
paint whatever he wished.
“To lose sight of Grant Wood’s quiet, subtle humor is to misunderstand the man completely. There was little of bitterness or satire in him, much ingenuousness and wit and an infinite capacity to see the funny side of himself.” ~Margaret Thoma, 1942
Grant’s First Art Contest
In 1905 when Grant was 14, he won third prize in a national Crayola coloring contest with a crayon
drawing of oak leaves. Grant Wood later said that winning this contest gave him the necessary courage to pursue a career in art, and the Cedar Rapids Gazette commented that “the award of third prize in such a contest shows excellent art ability.”
Grant Enters High School
The following year in 1906, Grant entered Washington High School. He met another student who would become a lifelong friend, Marvin Cone. They both shared a strong interest in art and became very close friends. Throughout high school they painted stage sets for plays, Grant did pen and ink drawings for the high school yearbook and school magazine, and he began to teach his own sister how to draw. Grant and Marvin also served as volunteers for the Cedar Rapids Art Association by unpacking paintings for exhibition and then repacking them when the exhibit closed. Grant even spent nights guarding the artwork when it was especially valuable by sleeping in the gallery.
Grant Graduates High School
In 1910 on the very same day he graduated from high school, Grant got on a bus to accept a scholarship from the Arts and Crafts Guild in Minneapolis with instructor Ernest Batchelder. Grant studied copper work and handmade jewelry, and after a summer of apprenticeship, Grant became a professional craftsman in the Guild’s shop. But this new job left very little time for his personal favorite, painting, so he eventually left.
Back on the Farm
Grant returned to farm life during the summer of 1911. He and a friend worked the farm of the Woitesheck sisters about thirty miles out of Cedar Rapids. The work experience was fine, but large
rats disturbed their sleep as they were bedded down in the barn. This nocturnal experience encouraged Grant to take a different path.
Grant Wood's Early Career
Grant obtained a teaching license and taught at a country school at Rosedale six miles away for the 1911-12 school year. The biggest benefit of teaching at the country school was that it qualified him to teach at a city school without the necessity of a college education. It would be a several years, however,
before he pursued another teaching position.
Grant’s Art Education
Instead, Grant spent the next few years developing his skills. He established his own jewelry and copper workshop for a time in 1912. In Iowa City during the 1912-13 school year he dropped in on a life-drawing class without ever registering or paying tuition. He spent some time in 1913 at the Art
Institute of Chicago studying art. To pay his bills in Chicago, he continued his work crafting jewelry.
Grant Returns to Cedar Rapids
But Grant quickly came back to Cedar Rapids in 1914, after discovering that his mother had lost her home and was running out of funds. The family, which included Grant, his sister Nan and their mother Hattie, lived with their Aunt Minnie, while Grant took odd jobs.
Grant Builds a Home
In 1915 Grant purchased an acre lot a mile from Kenwood Park, which would later become part of southeast Cedar Rapids. His intent was to build a small, quality cabin for the three of them. He gave it a Dutch door and roof, but it was not winterized.
The next year Grant helped build three
houses—two for Paul Hanson and one for
Grant’s family. From 1917
to 1924, the address of 3178
Grove Court became their
home was fully
Grant began to
find time to work
on his art once
Grant Enters the Military
Grant had been excused from military service due to his flat feet, but in 1918 he waived this exemption in order to serve with the 97th Regiment, U.S. Army Engineers, and his artistic talent went with him. While at Camp Dodge, Grant spent his free time making pencil sketches of his fellow soldiers, charging
a quarter for doughboys and one dollar for officers.
Grant became sick and was taken to
the hospital. When the doctors realized
he “only” had an appendicitis attack,
they decided against surgery as they
were overwhelmed with an influenza
epidemic. He spent the rest of his time
in the army making dummy cannons
and camouflaging the real ones with
a group of artists in Washington, D.C.
After the Armistice was signed, Grant
was discharged, and he made it home
for Christmas Eve 1918.
Grant Teaches Again
Following his discharge from the army, Grant applied for a position teaching art in the Cedar Rapids public schools in 1919 and remained teaching in Cedar Rapids until 1927. He started teaching in Jackson Junior High School wearing his Army uniform, as he had no extra money to buy civilian clothes. While the students were thrilled to be taught by a soldier, his boss Principal Frances Prescott had her doubts. She was won over in the end, as she moved him to the high school when she was promoted.
Grant Goes to Europe
Grant was thwarted twice in his attempts to travel to Europe: The first time at the tender age of 14
when his mother said no and a second time while in the army because they couldn’t find government
issued shoes to fit his flat feet. He was therefore determined to make a trip as soon as he had saved
some money. His childhood friend Marvin Cone and he made arrangements to travel the summer
of 1920. His second trip was much longer as he took a year’s leave of absence from teaching so he
could spend June 1923 to August 1924 studying at the Academie Julien in Paris. He sold some of his
paintings while abroad to help with his expenses and carefully packed the rest to bring home.
No. 5 Turner Alley
Upon returning home, Grant’s friend David Turner hired Grant to redecorate an old mansion in Cedar
Rapids to be Turner’s Funeral Home. Mr. Turner observed that Grant had no business sense and
was determined to help him. So when Mr. Turner realized that Grant was interested in the brick barn
behind the Funeral Home, he offered the hayloft to Grant as a studio space. Grant would have to fix
up the property at his own expense, but Mr. Turner would not charge him any rent. This hayloft would
soon become home for Grant and his family, and it was known as No. 5 Turner Alley. They lived there
from 1924 to 1934. Grant resigned from teaching after the 1924-25 school year, as he felt more
confident that he could earn a living by selling paintings and the periodic interior decorating jobs
The Memorial Window
Grant took his third trip to Europe in 1926, painting in Paris and southern France. Upon his return to
Iowa, his reputation through the region developed as he painted mural after mural. In 1927 when
he submitted a proposal to work on the stained glass window for the Veterans Memorial Building
in Cedar Rapids, he won the contract. This allowed him to take his fourth and final trip to Europe while
overseeing the creation of the window.
The window was to be 24 feet tall, so he made sketches sized accordingly. Grant’s studio could hardly accommodate a drawing of this size. He was much relieved when Arthur Poe, manager of Quaker Oats, gave him the use of a large recreation room to work in. The greatest problem then became an issue of perspective. Lines and spaces had to be wider at the top than at the bottom to keep it all in proportion, since the viewer would be looking at the image from the bottom.
Grant wanted the
window to be
made by the best,
as it would be the
glass window in
the United States
to date. So when
he was told that
the best workmen
in the world
could be found in
that is where he
Grant’s New Style
The trip to Munich would forever change Grant Wood’s painting. He left behind French Impressionism and embraced the realism in the Gothic painters he studied while in Germany. He looked for the decorations in contemporary clothes and was drawn to the rickrack braid on aprons, the calico patterns, and the lace curtains. Grant Wood discovered that there was plenty to inspire him here in Iowa. He found himself, and his work became successful.
“After I realized the material
around me was paintable,
and started painting out of my
own experience, my work had
an emotional quality that was
totally lacking before. I had
to go to France to appreciate
Iowa. That was the best way to get perspective.” ~Grant Wood
Grant débuted his new style in 1929 with a portrait
of his mother—Woman with Plants. The next year
Grant Wood’s career took off with the success of two paintings: Stone City and American Gothic. Grant
submitted both of these paintings to the Forty- Third Annual Exhibition of American Paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, and American Gothic won the Norman Wait Harris Bronze Medal with a cash prize of $300.00. The Friends of the Art Institute of Chicago then purchased the painting for an additional $300.00 for a total of $600.00. Using the Consumer Price Index, this is an equivalent of nearly $8,000.00 in today’s money.
Grant Wood's Success
This new style became
known as Art Regionalism.
It freed artists to paint
(or write, as the case may
be) about the people and
places they new best. The
three most prominent
artists that arose from
this movement included
the following: Missourian,
Thomas Hart Benton
(1889-1975); Kansan, John
Steuart Curry (1897-1946);
and Iowan, Grant Wood
Stone City Art Colony
Grant was such a promoter of Art Regionalism, he became one of the prime leaders in the development
of the Stone City Art Colony that took place during the summers of 1932 and 1933. He wanted to help
regional artists understand that they did not have to travel to Europe to study art—they could do so right here in Iowa. The endeavor was a success for the artists, but financially, it was a failure. When Grant accepted an invitation to teach at the University of Iowa in Iowa City in January 1934, the colony was left without leadership, and it died after its second year.
Public Works of Art Project
At the same time Grant was asked to teach at the University of Iowa, he was also asked to be the Iowa director of the Public Works of Art Project. This federal program gave work relief to unemployed artists, and his first assignment was to oversee murals for the new library at the Iowa State University in Ames.
University of Iowa
While Grant’s presence at the University of Iowa began as a temporary appointment, it quickly turned
into a full-time associate professorship. The art department benefitted as enrollment increased from
550 to 750 after just one year.
“…Grant inspired and taught the
young painters…that in their own
environment there is a wealth of
material to interpret. It was once nearly impossible for an American artist to receive recognition without going to Europe to paint. …Grant, through his own work of teaching and lecturing, helped to change that.” ~ John Steuart Curry, 1942
Grant Marries Sara Maxon
Grant didn’t acutally move to Iowa City, however, until after his marriage to Sara Sherman Maxon in March 1935. Grant said of Sara, “We’re both artists, and we think alike and like the same sort of people…. She is so gracious and hospitable—she’ll make a wonderful hostess…. Like us, she has been through many hardships.”
“Grant Wood is a rotund, compact,
stoutish chap with a disarming,
puckish grin and a soft deprecatory
voice. But keep your eye on that grin—it’s going somewhere.... A good guy, but not an obvious one.”
~ Harry Engle
Grant’s Mother Dies
Grant’s mother Hattie was not in good health. Sara helped care for Hattie through her prolonged bedrest and death in October 1935. Instead of having his mother buried in the Wood plot next to his father, Grant had her buried in the Weaver family lot just a couple of rows over. Seven years later, Grant was laid to rest beside her.
Grant Moves to Iowa City
Grant purchased and remodeled a grand, old Civil War house at 1142 Court Street in Iowa City. Grant and Sara loved to entertain, and their parties were famous. These parties included students, faculty,
visiting celebrity and friends. Some of the better known guests included author Carl Sandburg, philosopher John Dewey, singer Lawrence Tibbett, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace,
and many artists such as John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton.
Some of Grant Wood’s endeavors now included book
illustrations, such as those done for Sinclair Lewis’ Main
Street and Madeline Darrough Horn’s Farm on the Hill,
and book jacket illustrations. He also created a number
of lithographs for the Associated American Artists. Grant
gained a monthly check by producing four lithographs a
year. He then made the Associated American Artists his
agents and had a good working relationship with them.
The Marriage Ends
Meanwhile, Grant Wood’s marriage was not going so well. They were two of a kind in regards to money, which meant they spent more than they brought in. Grant asked Sara to leave, so she caught a ride with Nan and Ed Graham on a trip back to their home in California in 1938 and settled in Seattle. The divorce was finalized on September 25, 1939.
Conflict at the University
While Grant Wood’s painting and lecture career flourished, his relationship with the University of Iowa
began to show some strain. As the only professor in the art department without his own earned art degree, he was not as well liked by some of the faculty, and his work was questioned and criticized. The biggest conflict within the department was how much emphasis should be given in the curriculum to art history versus the creative work side of earning a Master of Arts degree. The issue was of such importance to Grant that he threatened to quit, but took a one-year leave of absence instead
during the 1940-41 school year.
“Wood was pestered almost from the
beginning of his university career by
departmental highbrows who could never
understand why an Iowa small-towner
received world attention while they, with
all their obviously superior endowments,
received none at all.”
~ Thomas Hart Benton
Final Summer in Clear Lake
Grant spent his last summer painting in a studio in Clear Lake, Iowa. The studio was in a former railroad depot. It was here that he finished the final touches on the two companion pieces—Spring in Town and Spring in the Country.
The Beginning of the End
Grant returned to the university in 1941 with strong support from administrators as they gave him a full professorship of fine arts. The new arrangement gave him more flexibility with his schedule and teaching style.
Unfortunately, his health was not as strong as his career.
Grant was diagnosed with cancer in December 1941.
Although he knew he was dying, he spoke cheerfully
of the future. His plans included doing a portrait of his
father, but it was not to be so. Two hours short of his fiftyfirst
birthday, Grant Wood died on February 12, 1942.
Grant Wood will be remembered for the rolling hills and round trees in his landscapes. With American Gothic he taught us how to laugh at ourselves. He was born and raised in Iowa, recognized internationally, and we are very proud of him.
For more Grant Wood stories, read Grant Wood and Little Sister Nan by Julie Jensen McDonald and
My Brother, Grant Wood by Nan Wood Graham with John Zug and Julie Jensen McDonald.