American Gothic: The Life of Grant Wood by Susan Wood and Ross MacDonald

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American Gothic: The Life of Grant Wood by Susan Wood and Ross MacDonald

Category: Children's Non-Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The life story behind a painting I certainly was never in love with as a child is conveyed for a more forgiving audience, in this colourful and easy to read biography.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 40 Date: September 2017
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781419725333

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Who won a national prize for a crayon drawing of three oak leaves before he was properly in his teens? Who sought acclaim as an artist and came to Europe to study from the greats, only to reject all they had to offer? Who instinctively knew a picture of his dentist (yes, his dentist) would be more appealing and say more to people than floating water lilies and frilly ballet dancers? The answer in all cases was Grant Wood, practically the most well-known painter in America at one time, and still the best, alongside Edward Hopper, at presenting his world minus any Modernist trappings.

That dentist is on the right of his most famous painting, the title piece to this short book, and the life story that led up to it is the focus here. The artwork on these pages has to struggle at times to make each and every picture different enough – the man did not grow to a great age, so there is little progression in his look, and he was a stickler for wearing rustic dungarees. The effort is in the artworks he tried to be satisfied with in Europe – a typical Parisian cityscape, a Picasso-lite work, a bit of abstract rubbish.

But post-American Gothic the man's artworks come to the fore, with them literally floating above the Iowan landscape, needing only to be captured and polished off by Wood in his regular style. There is little that is exactly regular about his most famous work – the unusual building is only a farmhouse, despite the religious look to the window in it, and nobody really knows what relationship it's supposed to convey. It's not a work you would see as appealing immediately to the young target audience of this book, especially outside the US, so is this read a firm success?

Well, I would think so. The book never belabours its inspirational tone, even when the story is at its most life-affirming. There is no sense of 'look kids, this guy stuck to what he knew and loved, and became world famous, so it'll work for you' – this is a biography not a motivational piece, even if it could well work as both. It's about both a life and the right turn it made when the building was discovered and the artwork planned, but if the script could be flawed it is in its declamation of this being a Damascene change, ignoring the success Wood had had before then. Still, said painting was a major artwork – an artwork that was not only a corrective to Modernism but was able to speak to the Everyman in the Great Depression – what did shimmery colours or strong shapes have to do with most families' daily struggle to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads?. Again, that idea as to its success is not forced upon us. The author (who does not seem to be a relation, even with her dedicating the book to Nan (the name of the female in the painting)) has a clear talent for producing biographies for the primary school audience, and with the warm palette and class of the artwork here, this is a most enjoyable example.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Tell me a Picture - Adventures in Looking at Art by Quentin Blake will take a young reader round an art gallery for wider learning.

Buy American Gothic: The Life of Grant Wood by Susan Wood and Ross MacDonald at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy American Gothic: The Life of Grant Wood by Susan Wood and Ross MacDonald at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy American Gothic: The Life of Grant Wood by Susan Wood and Ross MacDonald at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy American Gothic: The Life of Grant Wood by Susan Wood and Ross MacDonald at Amazon.com.


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