Regarding American Gothic, what makes the painting balanced?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Several elements enter into the balance of Grant Wood's famous painting, American Gothic:  line, shape, color, design, symbolism--even a certain ambiguity.

  1. Line - For the most part, there is the repetition of vertical lines in Wood's iconic painting; the planks of the frame house and its first-floor windows, the lines in the overalls and pitchfork, the man's coat, the faces of the man and wife/daughter. These vertical lines are met with right angles made by the horizontal lines of the roof. The lines create a symmetry as just as with the weathervanes on the house's roof and in the trees, there is a perfect imaginary perpendicular that supports the man and woman who stand so stiffly.
  2. Shape - There is a repetition of shape that unifies and balances the painting.  For instance, the shape of the pitchfork is repeated in the overalls and the white shirt of the man, just as it is the design of the Gothic window.  Even the oval heads of the man and woman repeat this shape.
  3. Color - Essentially monochromatic, the painting also has no intensity of color--even the red barn is faded--except for the black coat and dress of the figures.
  4. Design - The entire painting lacks movement, but is geometrically pieced together, providing a mathematical balance with the spaces equal on the sides and middle of the figures.  Notice how the gothic window resides between the man and the woman. There is a clear lack of artistic perspective in this painting (in photography, one calls this "depth of field"). Interestingly, too, the calico of the womans apron is repeated in the drapes inside the gothic window.
  5. Symbolism - The sharp pitchfork and austere appearance of the figures who seem carved from wood themselves, along with the Gothic window, suggest some satire upon the Quaker-like man and the ornate window, suggestive of an emotionalism and pretentiousness. In addition, there may be the suggestion of the grotesque and uncivilized, crude activities of the gothic genre.
  6. Ambiguity - Because of the photographic design that is mixed with some rather eccentric placements of window and people, in the Midwestern setting, there is a certain unified ambiguity about the theme of this painting. As one critic writes, 

 ...[Wood] combines a personal, iconography drawing upon a visual pun, portrait caricature, comic satire and rural regionalism with an eccentric unification of 'decorative' elements derived from local sources...the modest Carpenter Gothic house abounding with social and cultural implication.







teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

If we look at this painting, we see that you could easily draw a line down the middle. It would stretch from the central peak in the roof of the house in the background, through the center of the upstairs window, through the third prong on the farmer's pitchfork, and, finally, through the third knuckle of his hand. This striking line very markedly splits the picture into two halves. One side is dominated by the farmer; the other side is dominated by the farmer's wife. Their figures balance each other as visual elements. Although the farmer takes up slightly more of the frame, perhaps reflecting his dominant position as the male in the household, the two are granted rough equality as the most important visual elements in the painting.

The woman's predominately dark dress is balanced by the long strip of white shirt visible on the man, as well as by her white collar, and by her having more of the white house behind her. The man and woman also mirror each other in their solemn, resolute facial expressions. They look as if they are meant to be side-by-side, together but separate people, just as they are depicted in this painting.