The Artistic Vision of Eyes

The Artistic Vision of Eyes

By Katie Scarlett Brandt

Eyes in art—painting, sculpture, illustration—hold heaps of symbolism. They represent higher knowledge, judgment, and spirituality. They betray a subject's emotions and concerns. And they play an integral part in how the viewer interprets each piece's story. When facing a painting, eyes are often exactly where we look first, and those eyes lead us through the painting to innermost truths. But what happens when the eyes are looking directly at us? What's the story then?

Last week, I visited the Art Institute in downtown Chicago to take a closer look at one of the world's most recognizable paintings: Grant Wood's American Gothic. You know the piece. Its two solemn figures – the farmer with his pitchfork, the lady with her disapproving glare – are some of the most well-known in artwork, right up there with Mona Lisa, Whistler's mom and that guy who's always screaming. An iconic image, it has been the source of controversy, scorn, hope, satire, symbolism and near constant parody.

But still, even 80 years after its creation, the painting still holds inscrutable mysteries. Who are these people? What's their relationship? Who decides to pose with a pitchfork? These questions may never be fully resolved, but what answers we can find are hidden in the depths of their eyes.

First, though, a little background. The painting was inspired by, of all things, the house in the background. Indeed, the painting's title comes from the house's Carpenter Gothic-style architecture, and not, as often suspected, the farmer couple's secret fondness for black hair dye and The Cure. Grant Wood had spotted the home – located in Eldon, Iowa, and still standing today – and decided to paint it along with "the kind of people I fancied should live [there]."

To that end, he recruited his sister and his dentist (handsome devils both), dressed them in puritanical, slightly out-of-date fashions and asked them to pose as though they were coping with serious intestinal difficulties. Well, OK, the last part's not true – it's not likely the pair were this dour-looking in real life. Wood purposely elongated their faces to make them appear more grim and gaunt.

It worked – perhaps too well. American Gothic might be famous, but it certainly doesn't come off as a very exciting painting – at least at first glance.

When I'd first arrived at the painting, a mom was standing in front of it with her three kids, attempting to lecture them on its finer points. The kids, for their part, were wrapped up in an intense competition to see who could keep their eyes crossed the longest.

"Look closely," the mom told them, completely oblivious to the competition happening at waist-level. "See the pitchfork he's holding? If you really look, you can find it repeated throughout the painting." The kids, undeterred by 20th century American classics, continued their game. "See his overalls?" the mom said. "There's another pitchfork in the stitching of his overalls. See it?" (It's reflected in the lines of his face too. And in the style of window, and the 3 points in the background.)

The kids looked up and hollered "Noooo!" in unison, as if someone had just killed Hannah Montana. Apparently, it was the worst thing they'd seen all day, and with a sigh, the mom gave up and led them away.

This little encounter illustrates an important point about American Gothic. The painting is incredibly detailed, it's true, but that detail is presented with an odd sort of ordered symmetry that seems to really emphasize dullness and repetition. In other words, the thing that made the painting so exciting for the mom was exactly what made it completely boring for the kids.

Still, American Gothic has a story to tell – indeed, a number of stories to tell – if you know where to look. The subjects' eyes hold the keys to this painting's secrets – the relationship between these two people, what Wood was trying to say – if you can only look hard enough.

The man's gaze is relatively docile; it looks like he's actively trying to pose for a portrait. He stares directly at the viewer in what seems like a simple expression – solemn, stern, grim – but is that how he feels, or is that how he thinks he should feel? He's projecting an image, and the question is, whether we should believe it or not. With his eyeballs slightly raised in a questioning gaze, and his head ever slightly pulled in, it's debatable whether he's meek, or ready to lash out at the outside world. Is he challenging us, or asking us to play witness to the life he's lived? The pitchfork in hand doesn't make anything clearer – if anything, we're more unsettled about questioning his beliefs.

The woman's gaze is even more complex. Unlike the man, she looks away from the viewer, and we wonder, is she simply being modest? Does she spot something off in the distance ("Timmy fell in the well again")? Or, from the slightly disapproving nature of her glance, is there something more going on here?

One of the major debates over American Gothic is the relationship between the man and the woman. It was originally speculated that they were husband and wife – early captions for the image listed it as such, and that's how most people still tend to think of it. However, Wood's sister, the one who posed as the woman, was apparently embarrassed at being depicted as the wife of someone twice her age, and began telling people that the painting was of a man and his daughter, a point on which Wood wisely remained silent.

This question lies at the heart of the expressions these two are making. If they are father and daughter, is the man defending his daughter's purity with the pitchfork? Do her eyes speak of her longing to escape? If they're man and wife, is he defending the marriage from disapproving outsiders? Is she unhappy being trapped in a marriage with this older man, in the dull rural life? Or, is it some creepy combination of the two? Maybe this is more Gothic than we think. What's really going on behind that vaguely sinister-looking upstairs window? It's all in how you read the eyes.

Today, the painting is seen from two different perspectives, a satire of simple farm life and a stand-in for the average American. The painting is one of the most parodied images in the world, with everyone from political figures to Paris Hilton being cast in these familiar roles. The farmer and his wife have been given different facial expressions, new clothing, modern technology, but no matter how it's recreated or re-envisioned, it's clear why American Gothic rose to such prominence in our society. The two sets of eyes in the painting – deceptively simple at first, but more complex with each viewing – tell so many different stories and convey so many different attitudes that the painting itself has become shorthand for American life.

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