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Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930, oil on Beaver Board, Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection


Each year 15,000 tourists, art lovers, and Grant Wood fans drive across Iowa to the small town of Eldon. They come to mug in front of the white house that Wood made a symbol of rural America. What all these selfies and portraits don’t show, however, is the red barn that appears over the man’s left shoulder in American Gothic. The barn doesn’t exist today, and it didn’t exist in 1930 when Wood visited the house to sketch the design for the painting. The barn is a figment of Wood’s imagination, added to confirm the painting’s rural setting.

Barns are almost never the primary subject of Wood’s paintings, and art critics often overlook them. But perhaps paying more careful attention to paintings of barns from the early and mid-20th century can help us understand the challenges farmers face today. Even now, almost 100 years after Wood painted this red barn, the structures continue to exert outsize influence on our understanding of farming, food, and rural communities.

Grant Wood's Barns

Grant Wood, Dinner for Threshers, 1934, oil on hardboard, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

It’s easy to see Wood’s barns as expressions of his longing for a preindustrial past. Wood’s Dinner for Threshers for example, dramatizes an idealized farm life. He brackets the whole scene between a pair of red barns. They visually enclose the house and shelter the farmers seated around a communal table. Wood knew he was being nostalgic. The horses and wagon, the dress of the farmers and their wives, and the interior design of the house look appropriate for 1892—the date he painted on the barn. But Wood finished the painting in 1934.

Wood’s nostalgia is a key feature of his regionalism, a Depression-era art movement that presented traditional midwestern scenes with a high degree of realism. Wood the regionalist is often contrasted with modernist painters. Modernists used experimental techniques and abstract forms to point the way to a new, utopian future.

Wood’s farm scenes are generally nostalgic, but his approach to painting the barns in those scenes is surprisingly modern. His studies for Dinner for Threshers, made between 1891 and 1942, show that he initially planned to include more detail on the barn’s siding and cupola. However, he simplified and abstracted these elements in the final painting to give the barn a flat red surface.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Red Barn in Wheatfield, 1928. Oil on canvas board, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation. © 2024 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum  [1997.6.25] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo: Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART

Georgia O'Keeffe's Barns

At first glance, Wood the regionalist and O’Keeffe the modernist share little in common. O’Keeffe was born just three years before Wood, though. She grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm only150 miles from Wood’s Iowa birthplace. Like Wood, O’Keeffe painted a lot of barns. She spent many summers between 1918 and 1934 on her husband Alfred Stieglitz’s farm in Lake George, New York. While there, she completed at least 15 paintings of the farm’s barns and outbuildings.

The Barns, Lake George is cubist-like in its play with angles, planes, and volumes. Ends of Barns echoes Georges Braque’s Houses at l’Estaque with its massing of geometric forms at severe angles and its blurring of shadow and light. Red Barn in Wheatfield reduces the barn to a red triangle partially tucked behind a swath of gold. Wood never reached that level of abstraction. But his simplified barns suggest that, like O’Keeffe, he was more interested in the geometry, volume, and color of barns than the work they do on actual farms.

Simplifying and flattening barns does not come without consequences. The loss of detail causes a loss of connection to the actual state of barns in the agricultural landscape and economy. Charles Sheeler’s paintings of industrial sites edit out and gloss over manufacturing’s environmental and human consequences. Sheeler removed tired people, smog, soot, and grime. Wood’s and O’Keeffe’s abstraction of barns similarly unmoors the buildings from the actual people who work around them and the animals who live in them. This leaves barns susceptible to all sorts of misuse by marketing departments and corporate branding offices. The simple, flat barns Wood and O’Keeffe created a century ago established the visual language of iconic barns that we find in the grocery store and fast food restaurants today.


Thomas Hart Benton's Barns

Examining another approach to representing barns might help us reckon more fully with the changes and challenges that farmers and rural communities have faced—from the Great Depression through the Farm Aid years of the 1980s to today. Thomas Hart Benton outlived his friend and collaborator Wood by three decades. Benton continued to paint farms into the 1970s.

The Benton Farm shows a farmer hand-milking a single cow while his children and dog play in the dirt road behind him. Like Dinner for Threshers, Benton’s scene is dated. The artist knew that this farmer was working against the grain. In 1971, the year before Benton finished this painting, Earl Butz, President Richard Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, began rolling back New Deal protections for small farmers. Nixon’s policies supported agribusiness growth and consolidation.

Directly over the heads of the two youngest children in the painting are the shell of a concrete silo and a few timbers of an old barn. These details mutely testify to the loss of family farms that had flourished for much of the first half of the 20th century. Benton’s farmer is a “back-to-the-lander.” He shuns such 20th-century technologies as automatic milkers and silage (fermented feed) in favor of hand milking and hay for his cow.  

Thomas Hart Benton, The Benton Farm, 1973, oil on canvas, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Lent Mary L. Lewer, Trustee of the Mary L. Lewer Revocable Trust, 35.2017. Art © T.H. and R.P. Benton Trusts / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy Nelson-Atkins Media Services.

Today, barns are rapidly disappearing from the midwestern countryside. So too are small family farms. Like the skeleton of the barn in Benton’s painting, old barns rot and collapse from disuse and neglect. And just like their barns, many small farms are collapsing under the weight of debt, high input costs, low goods prices, and the breakdown of their communities. Still, barns remain a potent symbol of fertility, virtue, and community even as the way of life they symbolize becomes more tenuous.

Wood’s and O’Keeffe’s barns, along the ones on our food packaging, turn our attention away from the condition of actual American barns and farmers. But we would do well to pay attention to ragged and tumbledown barns or their stone foundations. In a globalized economy, incentives and subsidies favor agribusiness, keeping food prices low. We might consider the barns as Benton did: as reminders of farmers’ struggles.


Joshua Mabie is a co-owner of Pied Beauty Farm and associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater, where he researches and teaches American and environmental literature.


April 12, 2024