Wisconsin-born architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was twenty-two years older than Iowa painter Grant Wood (1891-1942). While contemporaries and famous Midwesterners, they apparently never met, although they were surely aware of each other’s celebrity and accomplishments. 

Both were influenced by Japanese-inspired esthetic principles, and, like many turn-of-the-century artists, designers, and architects, by the Arts and Crafts Movement, a variant of Gothic Revival that was spurred by the widely-read writings of John Ruskin and William Morris.

Grant Wood’s most famous painting, American Gothic, is a tongue in cheek allusion to Gothic Revival architecture. Painted in 1930, its title is a play on words, and the painting itself is a visual pun: the title refers to the architectural style of the farmhouse in the background (which still stands in Eldon, Iowa), a prairie adaptation of Gothic Revival, while, as a visual metaphor, certain features of the man and woman have been exaggerated to make them appear to be similar to the austere style of the farmhouse—to be Gothic Americans. You are what you live in, or, as Wood explained, he wanted to pair the architectural style with "the kind of people I fancied should live in that house.”

In Gothic Revival architecture, an elongated vertical gesture is used, often in pairs (as can be seen, for example, in the elongated in the Brooklyn Bridge), and comes from the prevalent Christian belief that “God is above.” In Wood’s painting, this allusion to heavenward movement is seen in the arched window on the upper floor of the farmhouse; the pair of rectangular windows below; the bilateral form of the pitchfork (Wood had initially chosen a rake); the echo of the pitchfork shape in the farmer’s overalls; and, most dramatically, in the stiff, exaggerated verticality of the two human figures, who are meant as a visual analogy to the arched window.
Extended upright stripes enhance a form’s narrowness and height, as confirmed by the commonly offered advice that people look taller and thinner when they wear clothing with vertical stripes. In the farmhouse in Wood’s painting, thin vertical wood strips have been applied to its surface, a common feature of Gothic-style cottages, to exaggerate the upward thrust of the building. For the same reason, Wood has subtly modified its features: in the actual farmhouse, which was built in 1881 by W. H. Jacques, the arched window is noticeably wider and less vertical than the version in Wood’s painting.

As in Wood’s American Gothic, the elongated Gothic rectangular form is a recurring element in Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. It is especially evident in the dining room chairs for the Robie House, designed in 1908, in which the backs are exaggerated uprights, made to look even more vertical by the use of thin, extended strips. More typical of Wright, however—and the Robie House is a prime example—is his practice of using elongated forms in a horizontal direction. As other writers have noted, while Wright inherited the Gothic vertical, he radically changed it by making it rhyme with the flat, boundless horizon of the Midwestern prairie.

Wright’s buildings do not reach heavenward. Referred to as “Prairie style,” they reach but they reach for the prairie instead. It is as if his buildings say (as he himself explained many times) that God is not just in the sky—but everywhere, in everything and everyone, in all creation. Consistent with that, he once remarked that a house should never be built on a hill; it should instead be of a hill. Thus, while the strait-laced Gothic American strives to dominate the earth, then ascend to a glorious spiritual state above and beyond it, the Prairie School savant attempts to blend in, to harmonize with his environment. Like a house, a man should not live on this earth; he should instead live of the earth.

Form follows function, advised Louis H. Sullivan, the Chicago architect who was Wright’s mentor. As elongated horizontals, some of Wright’s houses are similar to wide-brimmed Shaker farmer’s hats. So shaped, they function to provide natural cooling and heating: In the hot Midwestern summer, when the sun is overhead and high, the overhanging roof provides shade for the house, in the way that a hat brim shelters the face. In the winter, when the sun is low and on the south, sunlight shines through ample glass and provides solar heating. An apt example is Cedar Rock or the Walter House, near Quasqueton IA, designed by Wright in 1945 and constructed in 1950.

The term that Frank Lloyd Wright preferred in describing his own work was organic architecture, which meant that the parts of a building should have the same functional duality as parts of the body, words in a sentence, or members of society: each part should function as a whole, as an individual, while at the same time contributing to a larger unit. This governed his view of esthetics as well: “Every house worth considering as a work of art must have a grammar of its own,” he said; a grammar in which “everything has a related articulation in relation to the whole and all belongs together; looks well together because all together are speaking the same language.”

In 1904, when Wright designed the Martin House in Buffalo, New York, he “used one kind of brick outside, so he used the same brick on the inside,” as Edgar Tafel pointed out in Years With Frank Lloyd Wright: Apprentice to Genius (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1979), and “In keeping with the grammar, the tile on the floor of the exterior porch was the same as the title on the floor inside. He used only one kind of plaster…And only one kind of wood: oak. The chairs and tables were oak and so was all the wood trim. The total feeling of the house was of one stripe, from the overall plan down to the furniture, the door jambs, and the window frames.”
Wright’s esthetic principles were similar to those of Grant Wood. Just as in Wright’s houses, there is an intentional grammar throughout American Gothic: It too is of one compositional stripe, from the bilateral symmetry of the man and the woman, down to the windows, the pitchfork, and overalls. Three years later, he used the same method in Portrait of Nan, in which his sister wears a polka dot blouse and holds a ball (a recurring element being the circle); and, in 1939, in a painting of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree (titled Parson Weems’ Fable), in which there are dozens of circles throughout, all of which masquerade quietly as cherries, trees, fabric ornaments, buttons, and so on.


The strict and inflexible elements in American Gothic stand in stark contrast to the horizontal openness of Prairie style architecture, but Wood himself did not prefer one to other. He referred to the latter as Mission style, and, in fairness to both traditions, he had originally planned to create a pair of paintings, one a tribute to Gothic style, the other to Mission. In the second painting (which he never completed), as he explained in 1930, “The accent, then, of course, would be put on the horizontal instead of the vertical.”

Wood died in 1942, of lung cancer, one day before his 51st birthday; Wright died in 1959, at age 91. A half century after their deaths, both are still largely considered to be infidels by many of their Gothic American neighbors: Wood, they rumor, had a fondness for drinking, while Wright ran off and left his wife—or, nearly as damning, his roofs leaked. Sadly, even when they are lionized, it is done in a simplified, sanitized form. It fills the stomach, and conveniently serves as a way to avoid the art and architecture of our own time.

Frank Lloyd Wright
and Grant Wood:
Little Houses on the Prairie

an essay by Roy R. Behrens

The essay was published initially in Tractor: Iowa Arts and Culture (Cedar Rapids IA) Vol 6 No 3 Summer 1998. Copyright © 1998, 2002 and 2007 by Roy R. Behrens. 
Above The author’s composite montage portrait of Grant Wood and Frank Lloyd Wright, with its allusion to Henri Matisse’s green-striped portrait of his wife. Right The patent drawings for Frank Lloyd Wright’s office chairs for the Johnson Wax Company (1938). It’s interesting that the underside of Wright’s chair (fig. 4) has an uncanny resemblance to the current logo for Toyota.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnson_Wax_Headquartersshapeimage_4_link_0
Above Grant Wood’s famous painting American Gothic (1930), as reproduced on the cover of Jane Milosch, ed., Grant Wood’s Studio: Birthplace of American Gothic (2005). Compare Wood’s American Gothic house in Eldon IA with the related style of another Gothic-style cottage in another Iowa town, reproduced below. The use of upright strips is called board-and-batten sliding.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_gothichttp://www.amazon.com/Grant-Woods-Studio-Birthplace-American/dp/3791333259http://www.wapellocounty.org/americangothic/http://architecture.about.com/od/construction/g/boardbatten.htmshapeimage_5_link_0shapeimage_5_link_1shapeimage_5_link_2shapeimage_5_link_3
Above Book covers for Frank Lloyd Wright Revealed (2007) and Frank Lloyd Wright in Pop-Up(2009).http://www.amazon.com/Frank-Wright-Revealed-Rebecca-Snelling/dp/0785820795http://www.amazon.com/Frank-Lloyd-Wright-Pop-Up-Roland/dp/1607100088/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1258832980&sr=1-2shapeimage_8_link_0shapeimage_8_link_1
Above Diagrammatic comparison of the elongated Gothic upright and, below that, Wright’s elongated horizontal. Right Patent drawings for his Johnson Wax Company office desk.
Above Covers of The Guggenheim: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Making of the Modern Museum (2009), Grant Wood’s Main Street: Art, Literature and the American Midwest (2004), and Ada Louise Huxtable’s Frank Lloyd Wright: A Life (2008).http://www.amazon.com/Guggenheim-Wright-Making-Modern-Museum/dp/0892073853/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1258833434&sr=1-1http://www.amazon.com/Grant-Woods-Main-Street-Literature/dp/1888223545/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1258833581&sr=1-2http://www.amazon.com/Frank-Lloyd-Wright-Penguin-Lives/dp/0143114298/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1258833686&sr=1-1shapeimage_10_link_0shapeimage_10_link_1shapeimage_10_link_2
Above Covers of Grant Wood: An American Master Revealed (1995), Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect (1997), Frank Lloyd Wright / Georgia O’Keeffe: Duets (2003), and (at right) Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders (2007).http://www.amazon.com/Grant-Wood-American-Master-Revealed/dp/0876544855/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1258833926&sr=1-1http://www.amazon.com/Frank-Lloyd-Wright-Robert-McCarter/dp/0714831484/ref=sr_oe_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1258834032&sr=1-1http://www.amazon.com/Frank-Lloyd-Wright-Georgia-OKeeffe/dp/0060564202/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1258834446&sr=1-1http://www.amazon.com/Death-Prairie-House-Taliesin-Murders/dp/0299222101/ref=sr_oe_4_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1258834032&sr=1-4shapeimage_11_link_0shapeimage_11_link_1shapeimage_11_link_2shapeimage_11_link_3
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for a guide to our websites FALSE COLORS: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage (2002) CAMOUPEDIA: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage (2009) COOK BOOK: Gertrude Stein, William Cook and Le Corbusier (2005) Like a house, a man should not live on this earth; he should instead live of the earth.
Roy R. Behrens is a Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches graphic design, illustration and design history. His most recent books include FALSE COLORS: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage (2002); COOK BOOK: Gertrude Stein, William Cook and Le Corbusier (2005); CAMOUPEDIA: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage (2009); and SHIP SHAPE: A Dazzle Camouflage Sourcebook (in press, 2010).