American Gothic and Ma and Pa Kent

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(I originally posted this back in 2013.  I am reposting it for the fun of it.)




A first-rate video on Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930).  One of the more famous pictures at the Art Institute in Chicago, I have long admired it.  Endlessly interpreted, the  picture lends itself to a Rorschach  type of test where what the viewer says about the painting says more about the interpreter than it does about the painting.

Whenever I look at it, I have always thought of Jonathan and Martha Kent, the fictional foster parents of Superman.  The date of the painting would have been when the future Superman would have been around 11 based on his original chronology.  The Kents would have been desperate to keep their beloved son, just beginning the mastery of his awesome powers, away from the notice of the World.  The figures in the painting seem to me to be keeping a great secret.  They look suspiciously at the viewer.  The shades on their house are drawn.  The averageness of the couple is belied by their desire to keep prying eyes away from that house.  At the same time there is nothing that gives any hint of evil about the man and woman.  They simply have something great that has been placed into their care and they wish to protect it from outsiders.

The association of the painting with the Superman saga is not original to me.  In Superman The Animated Series Mr. Mxyzptlk, the imp from another dimension who periodically torments Superman, turns Ma and Pa Kent into a facsimile of the painting.

One can imagine the encounter that led to the painting.

From the diary of Jonathan Kent:

April 1, 1930.  Too wet to do any field work.  Patched some fences and repaired some machinery.  About 10:00 AM a city feller had a flat in front of the house.  I helped him fix it and Martha brought out some cookies and lemon juice.  Feller’s name was Grant Wood, a painter from Iowa.  I was about to start dickering with him about painting the barn, a job I have always hated, when he explained that he was an artiste.  He said that he would like to paint me and Martha to pay us back for the help in fixing the flat and the food and drink.  I began to tell him that was not necessary, when Martha spoke up and said that she thought it was a grand idea.  I looked at her and she took me aside and said that it would make a great keepsake for Clark.  Clark of course was the whole problem when it came to strangers.  Now that he was eleven he knew not to do anything “odd” when other people were around, but there was always a risk.  Martha seemed determined, so I didn’t ague.  When that woman makes her mind up it would take the Lord God Almighty to change it.  Besides, I knew that mostly she wanted an excuse to get painted in that dress I bought her last Christmas, and she does look mighty fine in it.  Martha said she’d tell Clark to stay in the house,  but with his eyes of course that would not stop him from seeing everything that went on.

Martha put on her dress and came out, looking real pretty.  Wood said he wanted me to hold a pitchfork.  I almost told him to take a hike, guessing he wanted me to look like a hick, which is what I am I suppose.  Wood said he wanted me to hold the pitchfork so that people would know I was a farmer.  One look at my weathered face would tell them that, but Martha gave me a stern look and I picked up the durn pitchfork. 

Posing for a painter is hard work.  While he was drawing us, we had to stand still, and with all the bugs around that ain’t easy.  About an hour into this I saw smoke billowing from town and I knew what was going to happen next.  Expecting Clark to sit by when there are people who need help is like expecting a cow to give out chocolate milk.  He flew out from the house in a red and blue blur and blew out the house fire with his breath.  He then had the sense to stay away until Wood was gone.

Wood saw the red and blue streak, and Martha got worried and her eyes narrowed.  Me, I just looked straight ahead as if nothing was happening.  Wood asked what that was and I told him I hadn’t seen nothing.  Wood looked suspicious for a few seconds and then he shrugged and went back to his drawing.  Two hours later he was done and Martha and I were dog tired.  Martha asked him if he would like to stay for dinner, which I thought was carrying hospitality too far, but he said he had a meeting in Topeka and he needed to get back on the road.  He promised to send us a copy of the painting and I breathed easier after his car pulled out of sight.  Clark appeared out of nowhere, like usual.  He apologized and I told him that he was just trying to help people but we needed to be cautious.

Well that pretty much shot the day.  My old man, if he was still living, would have skinned me alive for wasting so much of a workday with a city slicker, but I bet Ma would have been like Martha, and would have gotten the old man to pose like I did today.  I’ll work extra hard tomorrow.

More to explorer

Advent and Anti-Christ, Part III

Part three of my presentation of the four sermons of John Henry Cardinal Newman on the Anti-Christ delivered in 1835 before his conversion. 


  1. Mr. McClarey,
    A few months ago you featured Jack Kirby in this space and now this. As life-long comic reader/collector, I really appreciate these respites from the dire political news.
    My father was a farmer and I am not too sure that men like him would have kept a diary but this was marvelous regardless of its likelihood.

  2. As a superman fan, I approve of this post wholeheartedly.

    I dare say Don may have some work lined up when he retires from the law mines. 😉

  3. Since this post is about Superman (or at least his foster parents), here is an essay on the Superman movie of 2013 that is worth some consideration:


    Superman comes from a father on another world.
    Jesus comes from the Father in Heaven.

    Superman spends the first 30 years of his life in relative obscurity.
    Jesus spends the first 30 years of his life in relative obscurity.

    Superman listens to his foster mother Martha Kent, heeding her advice.
    Jesus listened to his real Mother the Virgin Mary, even turning the water into wine at her request.

    Superman lets his foster father Jonathan Kent die in a tornado.
    Jesus lets his foster father die, albeit by means not documented in Sacred Scripture.

    Superman goes to a priest to ask what to do – turn himself over to evil General Zod?
    Behind Superman is a picture of Jesus in Gethsemane, asking His Father what to do – turn Himself over to the Chief Priests and the Roman Governor?

    Both men decide to sacrifice themselves for humanity: “Not my will but Thine be done.”

    I found these parallels interesting and wondered if Director Zack Snyder intended them.

    I also note that the Superman genre was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster who (I was informed) were Jews. Is that correct? Outside of one questionable web site, I cannot find confirmation of that. Nevertheless, Jews deny Jesus is the Messiah. Yet perhaps they created a fictional character who has some of the traits that a Messiah would have: completely good and self-sacrificing, never using his power for selfish ends, always caring more about the people around him than himself, yet utterly omnipotent but immune to temptation. If that’s the case, then I find it ironic. The Jews want a Messiah and create a fictional character that would have some qualities that a Messiah would have, yet the real Messiah they cannot see. This is what St. Paul was saying in Romans 10 and 11.

    PS, I am NOT anti-Semitic. I really hope nothing I wrote above came off that way. But with this communication on blogs and Facebook and Twitter, people get all sorts of crazy thoughts. Besides, my Messiah is a Jew. And so His His Mother Mary (and She wears combat boots, unlike Martha Kent, though Martha did a good job in standing up to evil General Zod. Were she real, I am sure Mary would be proud).

  4. LQC-
    Noticing that a lot of super heroes are Christ-Figures has a long and fairly respectable history– I seem to remember several 60s comic covers that even mimicked the crucifixion.
    It branches out, too– there’s a reoccurring theme in the anime Fairy Tail of people doing a self-sacrificing block by standing in front of the targeted person with their arms spread wide. About the third time it happens, you realize that it’s definitely a deliberate choice. 😀

    Suggests that folks can see why Jesus, if they believed Him to be real, would be awesome.

  5. Summer visits to maternal grandparents in Mankato MN were idyllic. My brother n I especially enjoyed grocery shopping with Nana. Why? Because the Red Owl and Piggly Wiggly each had a 3 sided caral with benches along the walls and stacks of comic books for our reading pleasure: Sgt Rock, Batman, Superman, Superboy, Super Girl, The Flash, Tarzan, The Incredible Hulk, Aquaman, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Little Lotta, Archie and Veronica, Katie Keene, etc.. Afterward shopping maybe a bag of fresh popped corn from one of the popcorn carts on a side street, or an A and W nickel root or a root beer float. Those were the days.

  6. The two art critics noticed the stylized trees in the left background but missed the church spire. Every Midwestern town of any size had many churches. Depending on the date of settlement there could be two Lutheran (Norwegian and Swedish), two R. Catholic (German and Irish), Methodist (Welsh) and Presbyterian (Scottish) and maybe a small Evangelical hall. It was a church going, God fearing populace in those days.

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