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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