Hide/Seek: “Arnold Comes of Age” by Grant Wood – National Portrait Gallery

This is “Arnold Comes of Age,” a 1930s
painting by Grant Wood, the great American regionalist. Grant Wood was apparently the only American
artist who didn’t like Paris. He went to Paris to study at art school, was
there for about 18 months, and then comes back, moved to Cedar Rapids and he spent the
rest of his career Iowa painting the American heartland. Of course, he’s is best known for “American
Gothic,” the quintessential painting of kind of rural virtue and sobriety, the hearty
folk of the middle-west. In “Arnold Comes of Age,” he does something
a little bit different. We know from his writings and the most recent
biographies about Grant Wood that he was gay, that he struggled with that throughout his
life. He had a difficult time. And he codes that into “Arnold Comes of
Age.” First of all you see that in the corner there’s
the idyllic swimming scene, the skinny dipping scene. It would be known to a lot of young men. Again this is different than the pestilential
carnival of flesh that George Bellows showed in his riverfront paintings. This is idyllic. This is Huck and Tom on the Mississippi. It’s a quintessential innocent Midwestern
scene. But what I want to point to is the butterfly
which overlaps Arnold’s right arm. The butterfly is interesting first of all
because “papillon,” and Grant Wood may have picked this up in Paris, “papillon”
in French, French for butterfly, means also in French slang “gay man.” The butterfly is also interesting because
it mutates and evolves from something slug-like and ugly into something beautiful. If you will, it comes out. But I want to point to the butterfly because
the secondary characteristic of the butterfly is that the very beauty of its wings and body
allow it to hide in plain sight. It camouflages itself in the shrubs and foliage
hiding from predators that seek to destroy it. And in this small symbol of the butterfly,
Wood, a representational artist, is coding in the very notion that to be a gay man, particularly
in middle-America, would require you to hide in plain sight, to navigate a world which
in many ways was hostile to you, expressing yourself only when you can be confident that
what you wanted to express would be well received by society that frequently was antagonistic
toward you. So at the very moment that Arnold comes of
age, he is faced with the dilemma of how he’s going to mask and code his behavior just as
Grant Wood did in navigating middle-America in the 1930s.

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