Tiny Eldon, Iowa (population 916) is home to the backdrop of one of America’s most famous paintings. The artist, Grant Wood, visited the town in 1930 and sketched the Dibble farmhouse which would later appear in the painting, American Gothic. Today the original painting resides at the Art Institute of Chicago but Eldon is worth a visit to see the inspiration that led Grant Wood to create this iconic piece.
We’ve passed nearby many times on our way to and from St. Louis via Des Moines. Eldon is just 6 miles off highway 34 between Ottumwa and Fairfield. Once you reach Eldon, signs direct you quite easily to the American Gothic House.
The center contains an informative collection of exhibits about the house, Grant Wood, and Art Regionalism. Charles and Catherine Dibble built the house in 1881-1882. The style, called Carpenter Gothic, used somewhat incongruous fancy details on a plain farmhouse. The gothic windows in the gables of the house would normally be used in a church but were chosen from the Sears catalog to grace the Dibble home. Incidentally, my husband’s mother’s maiden name was Dibble and the Dibbles came from New York state as did my mother-in-law’s relatives. That, however, is a subject for future research and possibly another blog post.
According to information at the center, the couple never posed together for the painting and didn’t actually meet until 12 years later when the photograph below was taken. The woman was Grant Wood’s sister, Nan Wood Graham, and the man was his dentist, Dr. B.H. McKeeby. The artist assured them they wouldn’t be recognized in his painting but that turned out to be incorrect and caused some hard feelings especially with his dentist.
Grant Wood was an Iowa native, born in 1891 on a farm outside Anamosa where he lived until his father died when he was 10. His mother then moved the family to Cedar Rapids where he won third place in his first art contest at the age of 14. Following graduation, he spent a short time studying art in Minneapolis but returned to the Cedar Rapids area to teach school and lived in that area most of his short life. During a trip to Munich, he came to the realization that he needed to paint from his own experience. In 1929, he painted a portrait of his mother called Woman with Plants, launching his new style and taking his place in the Regionalist movement. The following year he painted American Gothic and, as they say, the rest is history.
Except for one more interesting side note: Grant Wood spent the summer of 1941 painting in Clear Lake, Iowa (which is 8 miles west of our home). I found this article in our local paper written in 2008 about the artist’s stay in Clear Lake.
Grant Wood died the following February of cancer at the age of 50.
References: All information was found in displays at the American Gothic House Center.
Based on events from July 2017.