American Art and National Identity

Tree Planting Group

Fig 3. Grant Wood, 1892-1942
Tree Planting Group, 1937,
lithograph, 8-1/4 x 10-3/4 inches
Brauer Museum of Art, Sloan Fund Purchase, 74.4

Iowan artist Grant Wood produced a charming lithograph of just such a national ritual, possibly Arbor Day, in which a public school teacher and her students celebrate a public event of planting a tree as a symbol of national perpetuity and rich national resources (fig. 3). Wood was a Regionalist artist, someone who believed that American culture could produce a characteristic artistic vision that did not require the emulation of European art. Regionalism sought out subjects and styles of image making that would deepen Americans' awareness of their own national culture. Oftentimes, Wood did so with tongue-in-cheek, with a robust consciousness of the narrow mindedness and provinciality of many Americans.

But he also painted the native wealth of what he saw such as the rolling prairie and neatly manicured towns of Iowa. He portrayed the rural world of the Midwest with the caricaturist's eye for the type, whether person, period, or place. Characteristic of Wood's art, Tree Planting Group (fig. 3) uses a naive style drawn from folk tradition and decorative art in order to suggest something that is true in the manner of a popular tale or folk memory. The naive style and the selection of nostalgic subjects recalls such popular visual culture as Currier & Ives prints and the contemporary sentimentality of Norman Rockwell, but interposes between the artist and his subject-matter a wry distance that makes his pictures a subtly ironic act of reflection on the prospect of painting the American character.[3]


3. The best study of Grant Wood is Wanda M. Corn, Grant Wood: The Regionalist's Vision, exhibition catalogue (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

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