Lot 29
  • 29

Grant Wood 1892-1942

bidding is closed


  • Grant Wood
  • Spring Plowing
  • signed Grant Wood and dated 1932, l.l.
  • oil on board
  • 18 1/4 by 22 in.
  • (46.4 by 55.9 cm)


The artist
G. Stewart Holmes, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
James T. Holmes (his son)
James Maroney Inc., New York, 1981
William Foxley, Denver, Colorado, 1982
Gerald Peters Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1995


New York, Ferargil Galleries, Loan Exhibition of Drawings and Paintings by Grant Wood, February-April 1935, no. 53, p. 30
Chicago, Illinois, The Art Institute of Chicago, Fifty-third Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture, October-December 1942, no. 25
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Cedar Rapids Art Center; Wichita, Kansas, Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art, John Steuart and Grant Wood: A Portrait of Rural America, Columbia, Missouri, 1981, p. 158, illustrated pl. 122


James Dennis, Grant Wood, New York, 1975, p. 95, illustrated pl. 92

Catalogue Note

Grant Wood (figure 1) was a key figure in the regionalist movement and an influential force in forging an American artistic identity in the post-Depression era.  His signature subject matter, featuring the fields and pastures of America’s heartland, reflects a fantasy of agrarian life – lush yet immaculate, abundant yet orderly – which appealed to an American public desperate for images of security and prosperity in the early 1930s.  According to James Dennis, “Wood’s stylized farmscapes and farm figures embody that perpetual American dream as no other American artist had done before” (Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture, New York, 1975, p. 13). Spring Plowing, in its bulbous green hills, neatly trimmed tracts of land, and uniform bright blue sky, encapsulates the distinctive agrarian vision that defined Wood’s mature regionalist style.

Grant Wood was born in 1891 on a farm near the small town of Anamosa, Iowa (population 2,000), situated 25 miles north of Cedar Rapids.  His mother was a teacher, his father, a local farmer.  Interestingly and perhaps fittingly, Wood’s unfinished biography Return from Bohemia begins and ends with his time in Anamosa, and in it Wood affectionately romanticizes every last colorful detail of his life growing up on the farm.  When his father died unexpectedly in 1901, the family moved to Cedar Rapids and Wood’s life changed dramatically.  He enrolled in public school and early on displayed a propensity for art.  Encouraged by his instructors, he later attended a life drawing class for a year at the University of Iowa and from 1913 to 1916 he lived in Chicago where he took night classes at the Art Institute.  Aside from a brief stint at the Académie Julien in Paris, this was the extent of Wood’s formal training.  He returned to Cedar Rapids in 1916 after his mother fell on hard times and worked a variety of jobs, from jewelry making to designing Arts & Crafts inspired bungalows.  From 1919 to 1925 Wood taught at the Cedar Rapids Public school and for the first time experienced modest financial stability.  He happily settled into the Cedar Rapids community, which became the backdrop of the rest of his career and the source material for all his artistic successes.

On October 29, 1929, the Wall Street stock market crashed, and ushered in a new, markedly different era in American history.  Culturally, according to Barbara Haskell, “[w]hat emerged in the 1930s was a pronounced nostalgia for the simplicity and self-sufficiency associated with rural life…[b]ehind the renewed reverence for rural and small-town America lay an allegiance to the ideals of community, hard work, and self-reliance as a source of national strength” (The American Century, Art and Culture, 1900-1950, New York, 1999, p. 226-30).  Roosevelt demanded Congress enact public programs to not only boost the economy, but to boost the country’s self-confidence. With the creation of the Public Works of Art Project (1934), artists, for the first time, received government support for their craft, and “were officially viewed as performing a valuable service to the community” (Ibid, p. 216).  The PWAP deemed the “American Scene” as suitable subject matter and, not surprisingly, much of the work created depicted Americans laboring together, a metaphor for the hard word that created this nation, and the same hard work which would rebuild it in the wake of economic devastation.  Hand in hand with this ideal, was the return to the colonial dream of “a land of pastoral self-sufficiency, a great green garden of farms tended by noble yeomen and their families” (Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture, p. 13).  These ideals, coupled with a renewed or created interest in small town America and a quest to uncover and assimilate a “usable past,” inspired artists to turn inward, geographically speaking, for subject matter.

Wood’s evolution into a regionalist artist was gradual and, as Wanda Corn notes, “began with a series of historic Iowa murals he made in 1927; was accelerated by a trip in the fall of 1928 to Munich, where he studied the work of the Northern Renaissance masters; and ended with his painting of American Gothic in 1930” (Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision, New Haven, Connecticut, 1983, p. 25).  Parallel with his developing regionalist style was the Agrarian movement in literature, which was in turn reflected by the regionalist photographers whose images of the limitless Midwestern frontier revealed the distinctive physical character of America’s heartland (figure 2).  Wood’s increasingly stylized forms recall the meticulously crafted 15th century Flemish paintings at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, where he found images of “local people in contemporary dress” (Ibid, p. 28).  Simultaneously, Wood, now living and working in Cedar Rapids, became consumed with Iowan subject matter and reveled in dissecting the insular quality of small town life.  Cornfields, local boosters, and rural architecture were integrated into his canvases.  The fervor with which the Cedar Rapids community supported him was unique; in 1931 he was commended by Henry Ely as an artist who “never bartered his birthright for a one-way ticket to any hot bed of culture…but had the courage, confidence and common sense to stick to his native Iowa and let the wise men of art follow the trail to his own doorway to do him homage” (Ibid, p. 17).

Wood’s choice of subject continued to reflect the full breadth of his childhood experience, but as James Dennis suggests, “the farmscapes achieve the most abstract level in composition and content” and “[t]hrough them Grant Wood’s mature art compares with the current trend toward a modern style of representational painting in the United States” (Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture, p. 87).  Spring Plowing, featuring an elevated view of unblemished emerald rolling hills, carefully carved out by the farmer’s plow and transformed into rows of concentric squares, is a whimsical account of the daily toils of the Midwesterner.  The reality of the situation, however, was very different; in the 1930s, severe droughts ravaged the Midwest, turning fertile farmland into an arid dustbowl.  Wood’s interpretation, however, is verdant and bountiful, flush with slick, high-keyed hues, billowing forms, and ornamental details.  The ground plane is sharply upturned, enabling him to give equal weight to every last detail, as well as convey as much spatial depth possible.

In Spring Plowing, the action of the scene is relegated to a tiny, anonymous figure in the center of the composition.  Even in Wood’s time, the act of plowing was losing relevancy in modern farming.  Abstract artist Arshile Gorky said: “What I miss most are the songs in the fields.  No one sings them any more…and there are no more plows.  I love a plow more than anything else on a farm” (as quoted by Ethel K. Schwabacher in Arshile Gorky, New York, 1957).  Wood’s farmer, though small, is a heroic figure, ascending the hill with his powerful horses, actively transforming the land which stretches out before him. 

In 1934, Time magazine hailed three regionalist artists, in particular, as responsible for championing truly American imagery in the face of prevailing European abstraction.  Of those three artists – Thomas Hart Benton, John Stueart Curry, and Grant Wood – Wood was named “the chief philosopher and greatest teacher of representational U.S. art.”  Fully devoted throughout his life to the practice and promotion of regionalism on a national level, Wood is responsible for some of the most highly reproduced and recognizable images in the history of our nation’s visual culture. 

This painting is accompanied by its original frame.

figure 1: Grant Wood next to Daughters of the Revolution at 5 Turner Alley, 1932. Cedar Rapids Museum of Art Archives.

figure 2: John Vachon, Harrowing the Ground Before Planting, Jasper County, Iowa, May 1940, 1940, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection