‘American Gothic’ murder mystery: Critics can kill

Today, I’m re-opening a cold case, a case of murder most cold and cowardly. The murderer was mad, mad, mad and dangerous to know and for a while, he was able to revise history. Some people believe his version of history. He must have been quite smug and self-satisfied at first but slowly despite his campaign to erase all traces of a man and his mission, history and humanity betrayed him.

By the time Horst Waldemar Janson died in 1982, he could not have been blind to the irony. The people who knew his name were academics and those forced to take courses in art history at universities. For all his airs of European superiority, Janson could not ignore the images on TV or in the movies. His enemy had become an icon.

Janson had knocked on Wood, Grant Wood, soon after Wood’s death in 1942. Wood was a hick. Born in Iowa near Anamosa, Wood studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and even traveled to Europe four times. Wood was an artist. Janson was an art historian and critic. Janson attempted to kill Wood with words and the lack thereof.

Recently Scott Jordan Harris, a UK correspondent for Roger Ebert and a contributor to BBC Radio 4’s “The Film Programme” wrote an article for The Telegraph asking if there was too much snark in film criticism. In America, we’ve delighted in such viciousness for a while it seems although not always in film criticism. And such critical prejudices have actually distorted history for millions of Americans. You only need to look into that famous tome: Janson’s “History of Art.”

The Harris’ article, “Let’s drag film criticism out of the snark ages,” asked if this era hadn’t become a bit too snarky and that critics might be taking too much pride in their poison pens.

An entire generation of film critics – or at least of those who would like to be film critics – seems to believe that the highest aim of film criticism is to crack wise about a movie that isn’t worth anyone’s attention.

Snark has been practiced by other critics–book, theater and art reviewers. Consider Dorothy Parker. Parker was the queen of the pithy comment while at The New Yorker magazine and was a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table.

Her review of A.A. Milne’s “The House at Pooh Corner” was (as the Constant Reader): “It is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.” She failed to see an enduring childhood classic.  More people are probably familiar with Pooh than Parker. What we forget is that Parker later show regret this Round Table and “the terrible day of the wisecrack.”

Yet Parker didn’t deny the existence of those whom she jabbed with her poison pen. H.W. Janson decided to exclude any mention of an art movement that had been popular in the 1930s and personal dislike of one of the artist may have been a reason. Looking at my second edition of  “History of Art” as an undergraduate art student, I can remember my instant distaste.

The book was originally written in 1962 and titled “History of Art: A Survey of the Major Visual Arts from the Dawn of History to the Present Day.” There is a notable absence of women and subjects that women seem to dwell upon, but I had already been told that women could not be artists when I was in elementary school.

Islamic art is covered  on pages 227-245 at just before medieval art.  The comparative views of the history of art chart does not divide up Islamic art into different styles as it does for India. Japan also leaps from Nara to Kamakura, completely bypassing the Heian period. For Janson, the history of art was largely centered on Western European and North American. Yet even while living in America, he pretended as if certain themes and artists did not exist.

What I had not noticed, until a recent visit to the Huntington Library’s “Roger Medearis: His Regionalism” exhibition is that one of the most famous paintings in American art history is not seen at all. Neither is the artist mentioned. Nor the movement he was a part of. How could I know Regionalism was missing as a student who didn’t know it existed?

The missing painting is so famous it has become an American  icon often parodied–as well known as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”  More people know of “American Gothic”  than know of Janson.

Grant Wood. “American Gothic.” 1930.

When you look at this painting do you think “small-souled”? Do you feel something is lacking because there is “no very unruly emotion”? Would you associate this painting with fascism or Nazi Germany?

“American Gothic” currently resides in Art Institute of Chicago. It won a Norman Wait Harris Bronze Medal and $300 in the 1930s for Grant Wood. Not everyone praised Wood then. One felt his work had a “gift-shop atmosphere” and another wrote “His color is clear, his outlines unblurred, and his surfaces polished. His intent is easily understood. His work is nearly always popular among simple people.” Some of those simple people who bought his work included Edward G. Robinson and Katherine Hepburn.

Grant Wood. “Stone City, Iowa.” 1930.
Grant Wood. “Woman with Plant.”
Grant Wood. “The Perfectionist.” 1936.

Wood died in 1942 and the retrospective brought out the snark in art critics. Dorothy Odenheim of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that Wood was “a provincial whose vision was restricted in more than a physical sense to the rolling hills of Iowa. He had no taste, no sense of color, no feeling for texture…no atmosphere, no smell of the soil, no wind in the air.”

No movement is made by one artist alone. Besides Grant Wood, there was Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and John Steuart Curry of Kansas. These artists focused on scenes of rural life and the images of America’s heartland were most popular during the Great Depression (1930-35).

Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Wood trained at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. Teaching at the University of Iowa (1934-1941) he was a one-time colleague of Janson and they apparently disagreed on almost everything.

The name of the painting, “American Gothic,”  comes from the style of the cottage in the background, Gothic Revival. The woman was Wood’s sister Nan (1900-1990). The man was a dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby (1867-1950).  Various interpretations have been made of the two: a farmer and his wife, a farmer and his spinster sister, a farmer and his spinster daughter.

Yet the painting is one of the most recognizable images, easily leading to parodies such as a scene in the opening credits for 1965-1971 sitcom, “Green Acres” with Eddie Albert and Eva Garbor. The 1988 horror film poster for “American Gothic” with Rod Steiger and Yvonne DeCarlo parodies this painting.  In 1997, the Tim Allen Kirstie Alley comedy “For Richer and Poorer” also used the painting as the basis for their poster.

None of these images  uses would make you think Adolph Hitler, Fascists or Nazi. I doubt if the PR people even considered “American Gothic” or Regionalism controversial. Yet in his 1946 essay, “Benton and Wood, Champions of Regionalism” Janson wrote of American Regionalism “many of the paintings officially approved by the Nazis recall the works of the regionalists of this country.”

Regionalism wasn’t just bad it was dangerous and “sufficiently dangerous to invite the closest scrutiny of its sources, aims, and methods, as well as the underlying reasons for its popular success. Since the movement has been nourished by some of the fundamental ills of our society–the same ills that, in more virulent form, produced National Socialism in Germany–it would be vain to expect its complete disappearance in the immediate future; nevertheless, a clear understanding of its nature will at least enable us to recognize its implications and reduce its influence.”

Jackson Pollock’s “The Key.” 1946.
Jackson Pollock’s “Number 8, 1949” (detail).

He also claimed that “almost every one of the ideas constituting the regionalist credo could be matched more or less verbatim from the writings of Nazi experts on art.”

From Janson’s perspective, it seems Abstract Expressionism was democratic. As with all movements, there is some interconnection in the creative fields and Robert H. Brinkmeyer in his “The Fourth Ghost: White Southern Writers and European Fascism, 1930-1950” feels that attitudes that brought the decline in Regionalism in the art world also influenced the rejection of white Southern writers.

“Pearl Harbor” from Thomas Hart Benton’s Year of Peril series.
Thomas Hart Benton. “Instruction.” 1940.

According to Patricia A. Johnston in her “Seeing High & Low: Representing Social Conflict in American Visual Culture” those values of Regionalism that “were consonant with fascism’s” included anti-modernity, anti-intellectualism, nationalism and homophobia.

Wood was suspected of being a closeted homosexual. Yet Benton was reportedly dismissed from the Kansas City Art Institute  for making a homophobic remark. Benton served in the Navy during the first World War and during World War II, he made a series called “The Year of Peril” which meant to show the threat of fascism and Nazis to the American way of life and ideals. Curry was known for his man versus nature images.

So while students of Benton’s who rebelled against Regionalism such as Jackson Pollock became the darlings of the art critics, students such as Roger Medearis found his artistic vision questioned. While Medearis wasn’t a strict disciple of his teacher Benton, he was associated with the movement. Returning after serving in the war, he found the art world no longer welcoming and his home life troubled. By the 1950s he would be divorced and working as a traveling salesman. He remarried and moved from the Midwest to California.

Roger Medearis, “Farmer Takes a Wife,” 1941. Egg tempera on board.

Medearis would return to painting and was living as an artist in San Marino at the time of his death in 2001. The new exhibit at the Huntington Library, “Roger Medearis: His Regionalism” is what brought Janson’s crime to my attention.

Yet what did Janson really know about Americans? He was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1913 as Horst Waldemar Janson. His family moved to Hamburg, Germany. He graduated from the University of Hamburg. In 1935 he came to the United States to study.  He taught at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts from 1936-1938 and then at the University of Iowa from 1938-1941. He received his Ph.D. in 1942 from Harvard. He became a naturalized citizen in 1943. Janson’s brother died fighting the Nazis in Germany.

Roger Medearis “Godly Susan,” 1941. Egg tempera on board.

Janson married Dora Jane Heineberg (1916-2002) who was also an art history student at Radcliffe. “History of Art” credits Dora Jane Janson as assisting in the writing of the text. The current text is now the history of Western art and Dora and H.W.’s son is currently in charge of reviewing and revising.

Seeing Medearis‘ later works, when he finally returned to art, still without the kind of modeling and blurred outlines that critics such as Pickering had found problematic with Wood’s work. Yet to me, such strong, rhythmic outlines remind me of Japanese woodblock prints. Medearis is the kind of artist that Janson could well have destroyed, but his return to painting in 1965 eventually led to his becoming a self-supporting artist. The works aren’t edgy either but can their beauty really be denied?

Roger Medearis “Home in the San Gabriels,” 1996. Oil on linen canvas.

Janson might have set out to kill Regionalism and particularly Grant Wood, but Wood’s legacy survives. What resonates in people’s hearts is not always what critics endorse. Critics can kill, but the snark can be debarked when the people choose a classic and you or your work outlive the people with the poison pen.

Critics everywhere should use this as a caveat to be humble or you risk the possibility of looking ridiculous in the future. Don’t be found guilty of the malicious attempted murder of a movement and don’t be tempted to re-write history.

Roger Medearis, “Native Oak,” 1981. Lithograph.


  1. Fascinating article, thanks! I learned to know and love America through the art of Thomas Hart Benton when I was a young girl living in Europe. A couple of years ago I saw the magnificent Grant Wood exhibit in Washington, D.C. The thought that some small mind went out of is way to belittle these giants is outrageous.


    • I really love Medearis’ nature paintings. Glad you liked the piece and I should read it every few months to keep me humble as a critic and hopeful as an artist.


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