Wood produces a similar effect in The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover. In 1931 Hoover was in his third year of office; he was the first American president from Iowa — indeed the first president to have been born west of the Mississippi, and his birthplace had already become a tourist attraction. What the artist offers us here is a Midwestern rural utopia, with a roomy, comfortable house sheltered by tall trees and overseeing manicured lawns. There's even a tiny figure at the center with one arm raised, as if showing us what's behind curtain number three. There's an ironic twist, however: Hoover was born, in 1874, in the little cottage that stands to the left of the main complex — which wasn't built till 1890, well after he and his family had moved out. So what people visited, and what Wood has quite consciously painted, is not the reality of Hoover's beginnings but the first step in the mythifying process.

That same year saw what could stand as Wood's most beautiful and complex work, Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. You have to look a bit just to find Paul; he's the miniature figure just passing the church, on a dashing, stylized steed that Wood copied from a rocking horse he found at a friend's house. As in Stone City, we're looking down from an impossible height, getting a God's-eye view of the dollhouses scattered along a yellow ribbon of road. Dominating the picture is a Colonial-style church that resembles Christ Church in the North End of Boston, where the lanterns were hung; it's the focus — actually it seems to be the source, an interesting theological idea — of the moonlight that floods the left-center area. Lights are on in the houses, and some people in nightclothes have emerged, but the sides of the painting — where Revere has been, and where he's going — are dark, as if to say that where we come from and where we're going are a mystery. We pass on by; the church and the houses remain, and even they stand in the shelter of what look like massive cliffs rising in the background.

Because the landscape is so obviously artificial and because the figures are so small, some critics concluded that Wood was debunking the myth; in his recent Paul Revere's Ride, Brandeis historian David Hackett Fischer calls the painting's landscape "soulless and sterile." Myth, however, is a kind of fantasy, and so it's appropriate that our American myths should be depicted in fantasy worlds. This one is geometrically abstract, rather than sterile, and its peculiar perspective, mysterious lighting, and elongated church spire reaching up to God give it an extraordinary emotional richness and resonance.

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Related: Review: ''American Gothic'' painter Grant Wood gets to leave the closet, Review: Patrick Corrigan's dueling creations at Gallery 37-A, Happy birthday, Picasso, More more >
  Topics: Flashbacks , Painting, Grant Wood, Worcester Art Museum,  More more >
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