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How Dick Van Dyke and Paris Hilton co-opted our most famous painting.

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(1) In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood paints American Gothic using his sister Nan and a local dentist as models. (The history’s recounted in Steven Biel’s new American Gothic: A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting.) The work places third at an Art Institute of Chicago competition (after nearly being eliminated in an early round). Critics interpret it as a bohemian’s caricature of Midwesterners, but Wood claims it’s simply an exercise in formal composition. The Institute buys it for $300.

(2) The painting is displayed at the 1933–4 World’s Fair in Chicago and reproduced widely in newspapers. Iowa farmwives are livid; one threatens to bite off Wood’s ear. Photographer Gordon Parks later borrows American Gothic’s title for his 1942 photograph of an African-American cleaning woman holding a broom in front of the American flag.

(3) The Music Man opens on Broadway in 1957; in it, two townsfolk pose in a familiar tableau. Six years later on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Rob thinks he’s bought a version of the painting at an auction. Laura points out that the subjects are smiling. Says Rob, “Well, maybe they had a good crop that year . . .

(4) In 1968, Nan Wood Graham launches a $9 million defamation suit against Johnny Carson and Playboy, prompted by a “Make Fun of the Classics” segment in which Carson shows the couple clad in skimpy bathing suits. Wood Graham wins a small settlement. Later, in 1977, she loses a similar $10 million suit against Hustler.

(5) In 1975, the cult painting makes a cameo in a soon-to-be cult film, when the American Gothic couple open the church doors for Brad and Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

(6) The painting, which Life magazine once used to illustrate the concept of middlebrow, hits its cultural nadir in 1988, when it lends its title to the slasher flick American Gothic, starring Rod Steiger and Yvonne De Carlo. (Tagline: “Families that slay together stay together!”)

(7) In 1997, critic Robert Hughes tries to “out” Wood in his book American Visions, calling the painting “an exercise in sly camp, the expression of a gay sensibility so cautious that it can hardly bring itself to mock its objects openly.” Gothic becomes not-so-sly camp when, in 2003, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie strike the pose for a Simple Life publicity photo. This year, the painting marks its 75th anniversary by returning to Iowa for a Grant Wood retrospective at the Cedar Rapids museum in September.


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