The tension between Old World sophistication and homespun Midwestern simplicity pretty much sums up Grant Wood's life and career. Born in 1891 on a farm near Anamosa (northeast of Cedar Rapids), he spent two summers after high school at Ernest Batchelder's School of Design and Handicraft in Minneapolis, then moved to Chicago, where he took night classes at the Art Institute. From 1919 to 1925 he taught in the Cedar Rapids public schools; during this same period he made three trips to Paris, where he learned to paint outside. The first of these, in 1920, was just a summer vacation; but for the second, in 1923, he took a sabbatical from teaching and spent 14 months in Paris and in Sorrento, Italy. The third stay, in the summer of 1926, culminated with a show of 37 paintings at Paris's Galerie Carmine; it was followed by the 1928 trip to Munich, where he was able to study the Northern Gothic paintings at the Alte Pinakothek, particularly the works of Hans Memling.

By 1930, when his mature style suddenly flowered, Wood had developed into an artist of the world. He had taken in the lessons of Impressionism but had been more influenced by the pointillism of Georges Seurat and the geometric forms of Italian artists like Giotto and Piero della Francesca. His stay in Munich exposed him to the Neue Sachlichkeit, or "new objectivity," painters like Otto Dix who in turn harked back to Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein.

READ: "American Gothic painter Grant Wood gets to leave the closet," by Jeffrey Gantz

The Worcester show reflects Wood's striving for the eclectic synthesis — a melting pot, if you will — that would make him a great American artist. Works like The Spotted Man (1924), Truck Garden, Moret (1924), and Mixed Bouquet on a Covered Table (Flowers for Alice) (1928) reveal an artist of originality and talent who's still in the chrysalis stage. In 1930 the butterfly emerged: lean in contour, vibrant in color, with an advanced grasp of geometry and a plethora of unexpected, often troubling, insights.

Thanks to the "miracle" of preliminary studies, you can see this transformation right before your eyes. A study for Stone City, Iowa (1930) is straight out of Cézanne: winding roads and rolling hills in a flat, centerless, nearly abstract composition rendered in severely muted greens and browns. The finished painting is astonishingly different: about all that remains is the high horizon line, which here suggests that God is looking down on His creation. And what a creation! Bright sunlight bathes the upper right section, where color runs riot: lemon and maize yellows, olive greens, rich mushroom browns, and a touch of barnyard orange. The Wapsipinicon River cuts diagonally through the middle; it's spanned by a handsome bridge. Forms are simplified into clear, recognizable essences, as if our existence were God's toy town. A windmill (one turns up in almost all of Wood's rural paintings; there are five here) on the dark side of the river and a small house on the sunny side anchor the painting, but everywhere the hills, tilting and swirling, roll you into the comfort and security of the buildings — an effect that's completely absent from the study. Just to the left of the big windmill you can see the tiny figure of a small boy on a white horse; the way he nestles between the windmill and a house's gabled roof says everything about the sense of security Stone City creates.

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