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Robert Torchia, “Grant Wood/Haying/1939,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/61104 (accessed February 16, 2019).

 

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Overview

The Iowa painter Grant Wood, along with John Steuart Curry (American, 1897 - 1946) and Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889 - 1975), was one of the leading midwestern American regionalist painters. Created in 1939, just as the country was beginning to recover from the ravages of the Great Depression, Haying and its companion New Road are representative examples of the idealized landscapes of rural Iowa that the artist had begun to paint in 1930. They show no trace of the severe economic problems and natural disasters that had beset Iowa farmers for almost a decade. Using a detailed, deliberately naïve style, such works typically include the cultivated lands, farms, manual farm machinery, windmills, and domestic animals characteristic of Iowa. Haying and New Road serve as both optimistic celebrations of better times to come and subtle portrayals of the state of American life as it turned from the calamities of the 1930s to the even more ominous challenges of World War II. These subjects were also motivated in part by Wood’s rejection of the cultural hegemony that the urban Northeast held over the rest of the country and his belief that an artist has a special rapport with his own native area. Suspended in time and poised at a particularly fraught moment in the history of the country, they are replete with the ambiguities and subtle ironies that underlay Wood's seemingly benign, straightforward regionalist vision.

Entry

Grant Wood’s early biographer Darrell Garwood identified Haying and New Road as “a set of twin landscapes” that the artist painted during the unusually short period of three weeks in June 1939, shortly after recovering from a minor operation.[1] They were painted specifically to be exhibited at a fine arts festival at the University of Iowa in Cedar Rapids.[2] Wood had been engrossed with lithography for the previous three years, and these were the first oil paintings he had executed since Spring Turning (1936, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, NC). Shortly after completing them he painted the well-known Parson Weems' Fable (1939, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX), and he continued to work regularly in oil until his death in 1942.

Although Haying and New Road were inspired by views Wood saw during his travels between Iowa City and Lake Macbride, they are representative examples of the idealized landscapes of rural Iowa that Wood first painted in Stone City, Iowa [fig. 1].[3] Wood’s choice of subject was dictated in part by his rejection of the urban Northeast’s cultural hegemony over the rest of the United States and his belief that an artist has a special rapport with his native area. In his 1935 essay Revolt Against the City Wood expresses his annoyance at the eastern habit of stereotyping the Midwest as “provincial” and populated by “peasants.” He declares that Iowa, his native state, is “a various, rich land abounding in painting material.” In accordance with Wood’s statement that “central and dominant in our Midwestern scene is the farmer,” his landscapes feature the cultivated lands, farms, manual farm machinery, windmills, and grazing animals characteristic of Iowa.[4] The few previous scholarly discussions of Haying and New Road have generally centered on the barn, a staple of the regionalist landscape, as a rapidly vanishing icon of the American countryside that signified community and social stability.[5]

Despite Wood’s regionalist convictions and advocacy of American subjects and artistic styles, European influences are discernable in his mature oeuvre. Wood was familiar with the contemporary Neue Sachlichkeit painters in Germany, who practiced various forms of detailed realism and whose work he had seen during his 1928 trip to Munich.[7] The wide-angle vista, bird's-eye view, slightly distorted linear perspective, lack of atmospheric perspective, unusually high horizon line, and meticulous attention to detail in many of Wood’s landscapes also reflect his keen awareness of 15th-century northern European precedents.[6] Operating in tandem with Wood’s evocations of the traditional harvesting scenes found in the calendar pages of illuminated manuscripts and paintings such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hay Making (1565, National Gallery, Prague), the eerie absence of anecdotal human activity in Haying reveals his modernist sensibilities.

Although Wood has generally been considered a conservative realist, his habit of reducing landscapes into a series of simplified, ornamental, abstract, repeating patterns demonstrates a familiarity with modernism and art deco design.[8] Brady M. Roberts has recently noted that Haying’s complex structure of multicolored, thin, horizontal brush strokes creates “a surface vocabulary approximating Seurat’s pointillism.”[9] Although Haying and New Road were executed in Wood’s precise, crosshatched technique, the relatively loose handling of paint has more in common with his plein-air studies than the smoother, more polished surfaces of his major paintings. In a letter to the offices of Associated American Artists in New York Wood referred to them as “sketches,” and it is possible, as the typewritten papers attached to their reverses suggest, that he planned to paint larger versions.[10]

Wood characterized the verdant Iowa landscape as an idyllic land of plenty and gave no indication in his paintings of the severe economic problems and natural disasters that beset Iowa farmers during the 1930s. Haying betrays no evidence of severe soil depletion and erosion, declining crop prices, the problems engendered by tenant farming, the fact that many farm owners were overburdened with heavy mortgages and threatened with foreclosure, manifestations of labor unrest among the farmers, the mass exodus of Iowans to other states, and the many farmers who abandoned their agricultural lifestyle and sought a better livelihood in growing urban industrial centers.[11] While Wood acknowledged that the farmer's life “is engaged in a constant conflict with natural forces,”[12] he, unlike John Steuart Curry (American, 1897 - 1946) and lesser-known Texas regionalists such as Jerry Bywaters (American, 1906 - 1989) and Alexandre Hogue (American, 1898 - 1994),[13] did not stress the ravages of natural calamities in his benign, sunny landscapes. Although many of Iowa's problems were successfully addressed by state and federally funded programs, the idealistic agrarianism of landscapes such as Haying was far removed from reality.

James Dennis has explained this phenomenon by citing Wood’s populist belief that the farmer was a virtuous, pure, and self-sufficient tiller of the soil who was immune from corrupting influences. This idealized view of rural life had its origins in the late 19th century. During the 1930s, isolationist, nationalist agrarians revived this attitude in response to the growing encroachment of urbanization into the American heartland.[14] Dennis discusses how Wood reinforces this myth by excluding mechanized farm machinery in his agricultural landscapes, as well as railroads, utility poles, telephone wires, billboards, and other signs of the modern industrial era. Here the haying machine on the horizon signifies the farmer’s close, physical relationship with the soil through manual labor. Nevertheless, Wood revealed his involuntary susceptibility to technology by illustrating wide expanses of uniformly cultivated land that could only have been accomplished through mechanization. Similarly, Wood’s characteristic form of abstraction was influenced by innovations in industrial design, such as streamlining.[15]

Despite their disarmingly benign and seemingly straightforward appearance, landscapes such as Haying and New Road are complex, carefully orchestrated works full of ambiguities and inconsistencies that reveal much about Wood’s unique brand of regionalism. If New Road depicts the country in 1939 as literally and figuratively approaching a crossroads, a fateful turning point between the calamities of the Great Depression and what would prove to be the even more ominous, existential challenges of World War II, the irregular patterning of the fields in Haying presents the same moment as even more intricate and mazelike. The corked water jug resting in the shadows at the elbow of an L-shaped row in the foreground beckons the viewer to begin their journey through the painting’s labyrinth of hay. Like a traveler at a crossroads, a decision must be made to go to the right or to the left.

Robert Torchia

August 17, 2018

Inscription

lower left, the "c" a copyright symbol: c GRANT / WOOD / 1939

Provenance

The artist; sold to Irwin [1880-1953] and Clara R. Sax [1889-1981] Strasburger, White Plains, New York, by 1944;[1] bequest 1982 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1939
Fine Arts Festival, Memorial Union, University of Iowa, Cedar Rapids, 1939.
1981
John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood: A Portrait of Rural America, Cedar Rapids Art Center; Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University; Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Missouri-Columbia, 1981, fig. 149.
1985
America in Transition: Benton and His Contemporaries, 1920-1940, Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1985.
1987
Extended loan for use by Vice President and Mrs. George Bush, Vice President's House, Washington, D.C., 1987-1989.
1990
Loan to display with permanent collection, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 1990-1991.
1991
One-Hundredth Birthday Anniversary Celebration, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 1991.
1994
Barn Again, National Building Museum, Washington, D.C., 1994, no catalogue.
1995
Grant Wood: An American Master Revealed, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska; Davenport Museum of Art, Iowa; Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts, 1995-1996, no. 55, pl. 9.
2008
Double Lives: American Painters as Illustrators, 1850-1950, Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford; New Britain Museum of American Art, 2008-2009, unnumbered catalogue.
2016
Grant Wood and the American Farm, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, 2016, no catalogue.
2018
Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2018, no. 96, repro.
Bibliography
1971
Garwood, Darrell. Artist in Iowa: A Life of Grant Wood. (New York, 1944) Reprint Westport, CT, 1971: 222, 254.
1975
Dennis, James M. Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture. New York, 1975: 93-94, color pl. 35.
1981
Czestochowski, Joseph S. John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood: A Portrait of Rural America. Columbia, MO, 1981: fig. 149.
1992
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 384, repro.
1994
Schenker, Heath. “Picturing the Central Valley.” Landscape 32, no. 2 (1994): 8, repro.
1995
Roberts, Brady M., James M. Dennis et al. Grant Wood: An American Artist Revealed. Exh. cat. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, NE; Davenport Museum of Art, IA, and the Worcester Art Museum, MA, 1995-1996. Davenport and San Francisco, 1995: 3, 73, color pl. 9.
2018
Haskell, Barbara, and Glenn Adamson. Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables. Exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2018: 30, color pl. 96.
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