In paintings such as Daughters of Revolution (1932) and Parson Weems’ Fable (1939), Grant Wood clearly asserted his own role as interpreter and storyteller, aiming to preserve “something of color and imagination,” in his words, from the past for the Depression-era present. “As I see it, the most effective way to do this is to frankly accept these historical tales for what they are now known to be—folklore—and treat them in such a fashion that the realistic-minded, sophisticated people of our generation can accept them.” (New York Times, January 3, 1940). The painter took liberties with the stuff of history, not to pull the wool over his audiences’ eyes but to rekindle a common American heritage through doses of fact, fiction, humor, and artistry. History-telling itself becomes a subject in many of his paintings, brought to the fore by renderings of strong narratives, relatable figures, and timeworn objects. History, myth, and material culture were points of departure, building blocks for visually expressing new commentaries about shared experiences and values.

Wood’s deep, yet playful engagement with the past marks a defining contribution to American modernism. This paper examines Grant Wood as visual history-teller during the 1930s. It also considers Wood’s efforts alongside those of his contemporaries, including Aaron Douglas, Edward Hopper, Doris Lee, Ben Shahn, and Charles Sheeler, who likewise called on the past to reimagine understandings of local and national identities during the Depression years. Working in a range of styles from realism to abstraction, artists revived the old in varying ways, marshaling diverse origin stories and historical artifacts to shape an array of modernisms. The paper aims to better understand Wood’s distinctive place as national raconteur by situating his works within the era’s broad endeavor to visualize (versions of) the past in service of culture and community.

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About the speaker

Annelise Madsen
Annelise K. Madsen is Assistant Curator of American Art at the Art Institute of Chicago and a co-curator of America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s (organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and traveling to the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2016–17). In 2013, she co-curated the exhibition Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine and contributed to its accompanying catalogue. She has published several essays on Gilded Age and Progressive Era civic art, most recently on suffrage pageantry in Winterthur Portfolio (Winter 2014) and on the mural program at the Library of Congress in American Art (Summer 2012). Currently, she is working on an exhibition entitled John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age for summer 2018 at the Art Institute. Annelise serves on the board of the Association of Historians of American Art (AHAA). She holds a Ph.D. in art history from Stanford University.