Sample Chapter: Fertility
Alternate Title: None.
Image: 8 7/8” x 11 7/8”
Released: October 1939.
Printer: George C. Miller (1894-1965).
Edition: 250 (plus 10 sent to the artist).
Drawing: Private collection (17.5” x 23.5”).
Publishers: Reeves Lewenthal and Maurice Liederman
Associated American Artists, 711 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York
Original Associated American Artist Label:
Grant Wood has become world-famed for his ability to use American subject matter in an original fashion. Wood confines himself to the quieter and more stable aspects of American life.
Grant Wood is a pioneer in the movement to enrich the cultural soil of America by establishing local centers of production in art. Long before the Federal Government entered the art field he had experimented with a colony of art students at Stone City, Iowa. He has sent hundreds of artists back to the farm and to Main Street. In 1930 the artist received the Harris bronze medal from the Art Institute of Chicago. Two of his important works, “Woman with Plants” and “Doorway at Periguex” are to be found at the Cedar Rapids Art Association. “American Gothic” is in the Art Institute at Chicago. Other of his works are in the Lincoln, Nebraska Art Association; the Art Institute of Omaha, Nebraska; Dubuque, Iowa Art Association. In the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York are drawings for Mr. Wood’s famous painting, “Dinner for Threshers.” He is the author of the book, “Return From Bohemia” which is scheduled for publication next Fall.
Associated American Artists, 711 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y.
“Fertility” represents Wood’s mastery of
pattern and design in fine tonal lithography.
Now owned in ten museum collections.
- Associated American Artists
Undated Catalog, c. 1948
Of all nineteen of Grant Wood’s lithographs, Fertility stands out as the most optimistic, literally swelling with symbols of Midwestern abundance, hope, and reassurance that the land will respond, providing sustenance for the American people still reeling from the devastating affects of the Great Depression.
The orderly, weedless rows of corn with full, fanned tassels, lush leaves, and plump, ripe ears draw the gaze of the viewer to the white façade of the bulging barn and the towering, rocket-shaped silo, both basking in the full summer sun. And while none of the farms’ occupants are depicted, their meticulous maintenance speaks for their character: not a window is broken, not a shingle curled, nary an object is out of place.
The barn in Fertility invites comparison to two other farm buildings in Wood’s lithographs. In Seed Time and Harvest (J-2, 1937) the farmer is shown carrying a bushel basket laden with ears of corn into a modest, one-story barn that looks more like a large shed with a broken door.
Later, when composing December Afternoon (J-18, 1941), Grant Wood again builds a modest barn, an older one in need of a coat of paint and that sags slightly under the weight of the fresh snow. The enormous three-story barn in Fertility, however, literally appears to be ready to burst at the seams, an impression emphasized by the artist’s choice of four small windows and a roof line with a pregnant bulge rather than an aging sag.
The inclusion of the two metal roof vents, designed to allow warm air inside the barn’s hay loft to escape while preventing rain from entering, reflect Wood’s first-hand experience around farms. In a similar fashion, so does the angled support brace mortised into the corner fence post. It is interesting to note, however, Wood’s omission of the strands of wire that would typically have been strung between the wooden fence posts. The wire would have served two purposes: to keep any stray cattle or hungry horses from trampling into the field before it had been harvested, and to confine the farmer’s cattle inside the field after the fall harvest, when the livestock would have fed off the remnants of stripped cornstalks and any dropped ears of corn. Wood, however, may have considered the horizontal strands of wire to be a distracting barrier between the viewer and the perfect rows of corn deliberately drawing our vision to the bulging barn.
While some observers point to the pregnant barn beside the erect silo as examples of Grant Wood’s erotic imagery, they were each also integral components in a Midwestern farming operation. The barn was designed to hold loose or baled hay in the upper loft, accessed from hayracks pulled from the fields and parked beneath the large upper doors. The adjacent silo would have been filled with corn and was attached to the side of the barn so that the grain, like the hay in the loft, could easily be fed to the cattle waiting in the lower level.
Wood could have selected just these three components -- the lush cornfield, the bulging barn, and the towering silo -- to convey his message of Fertility, but he opted to include a fourth: the farmhouse. The modest one-and-a-half story farmhouse is indicative not of a wealthy landowner, but of a typical Midwestern farmer, one who wisely knows that a year of abundance can just as easily be followed by an entire year’s crop being wiped out by hail, wind, grasshoppers, disease, or drought. The farmhouse functions on at least three levels: it reveals the frugal nature of the farmer; it reflects his care and concern for all of his buildings; and it emphasizes by its scale just how enormous -- and important -- the silo and barn are to the farmer.
The farmhouse, adeptly haloed by the addition of a lush tree in the background, also enabled Grant Wood to slip into the print yet another example of his mischievous sense of humor. The front of the house bears an uncanny and unmistakable resemblance to the front of the house he had depicted so famously nine years earlier in American Gothic. The pitch of the roof and the inclusion of a Gothic window in the peak of the house in Fertility mimic that found in his earlier iconic painting, serving as a reminder, just as it did in Honorary Degree (J-5, 1938), of both Grant Wood’s and the Regionalist movement’s homage to the European Gothic influence.
“With its burgeoning barn and densely packed cornfield, this stylized farmscape is a testimonial to the agricultural productivity of Iowa,” noted one recent reviewer. “However, Grant Wood also suggests that Regionalism is a fertile philosophy for artistic growth, as evidenced by the numerous references to Gothic architecture: the farmhouse is the same Carpenter Gothic house from American Gothic, the barn’s Gothic vault, and the corn leaves form arched tiers reminiscent of a Gothic church.” (1.)
As art critic Thomas Craven had written four years earlier about the famous house, “He had seen in southern Iowa a low white farmhouse with a peaked gable and a single Gothic window. ‘I imagined,’ he said, ‘American Gothic people, with their faces stretched out long, to go with this American Gothic house.’” (2.)
Grant Wood also explained his own fascination with Midwest farmhouses and out-buildings, remarking:
And so, to my great joy, I discovered that in the very common place, in my native surroundings, were decorative adventures, and that my only difficulty had been in taking them too much for granted. I regret the years I spent searching for tumble-down houses that looked ‘Europy.’ I know now that our cardboard frame houses on Iowa farms have a distinct American quality and are very paintable. To me their hard edges are especially suggestive of the Middle West civilization. (3.)
And to those who felt as if Grant Wood’s lithographs depicted an unrealistic, nearly idyllic, picture of life on a Midwestern farm, Thomas Craven came to his friend’s defense, explaining, after a visit to the artist’s home:
Before viewing the Iowa terrain, I had thought that Grant Wood, in his paintings, had too neatly re-arranged and tailored it; that he had given to rural scenes the appearance of formal gardens, or that quaint, topographical regularity with which nature, when seen from an airplane, deceives the eye.
But on first-hand inspection I was struck with the remarkable realistic truth of his landscapes, despite the deliberate admixture of fantasy and humor.
The farms of Iowa are laid out with mathematical accuracy; the corn rows are as straight as surveyors’ lines; the houses, barns and silos are spruce and clean and in the best of repair; the black soil is thoroughly harrowed and free from weeds -- all is order, method, thrift. (4.)
A more recent biographer concluded, “Fertility is a tribute to shape, textures, and motifs that Wood embraced: the American Gothic house in the distance, the proscenium arch formed by the silhouette of the pregnant barn, the rocket-shaped silo which performs like a bell tower, the barn as an agrarian cathedral, and the rows of corn, so close together that their leaves join to form a series of Gothic arches.” (5.)
All of this explains why Fertility quickly emerged and has remained as one of Grant Wood’s most enduring lithographs.
1. Dubuque Museum of Art website.
2. Graham Scrapbooks, “Home Grown Art, Country Gentleman, November 1935.
3. Graham Scrapbooks, “The Art of Grant Wood,” Christian Science Monitor, March 26, 1932.
4. Graham Scrapbooks, undated clipping, “An Iowa Artist,” Chicago Herald and Examiner.
5. Milosch, p. 107.
Each book personally autographed by the author.