Artist: Grant Wood (American, 1891-1942)
Title: Victorian Survival
Accession #: LTL.99.09
Medium: Oil on composition board
Dimensions: 32 1/2 x 26 1/4 in.
On long-term loan from the Carnegie-Stout Public Library, acquired through the Lull Art Fund
About the Artist: Painted in his wonder year of 1931, Victorian Survival is Wood’s satirical homage to the settled world in which he grew up, a world into which modernism had steadily intruded. The brownish-yellow tone is exact in imitating the colors of these 19th century pictures. He even placed it in a frame that echoed those in which such old photographs would be found.
Victorian Survival is based on a tintype of Grant Wood’s great aunt, Matilda Peet. The facial features are clearly those of Great-Aunt Matilda, but the rest of the painting is pure Grant Wood. Her nephew treasured relics from the family past, such as this photograph, and kept many of them with him, using them as inspiration and models for his art. From other Victorian images and from his own memory, Wood fashioned a stiff, compressed figure dressed soberly in black. Even the decorative items like the brooch and the preposterous black neck band only make her look more forbidding. Just as we are about to see the repressed woman as the embodiment of every Victorian cliché, we notice the telephone poking into the picture. Now, in a typical Wood metamorphosis, the scene switches from solemn to comic. Even though it is quite different from telephones today, we recognize it as a modern intrusion into her quiet, folded-hands world. Any moment, the phone will ring its insistent ring, the composed Victorian lady will jump, and her eyes will dart in the direction of the offending sound. The phone lifts its mouthpiece as if sticking out its tongue at this woman who is looking so very proper. Any minute now, this will turn from a dignified portrait to a modern, irreverent comedy. Placed on a table covered by a weaving in a typical 19th century pattern, the telephone is a reminder that the New infiltrates into even the most traditional of cultures.