Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride were painted in 1434 by the most famous and innovative Flemish painter Jan van Eyck (ca 1390-1441). American Gothic was painted nearly 500 years later in 1930 by the acclaimed American Regionalist artist Grant Wood (1891-1942). Both images are highly detailed oil portraitures with van Eyck’s Northern Renaissance masterpiece appearing on Wood and Wood’s American icon image painted on beaverboard.
Both artworks communicate the artist’s traditional customs and cultures with very similar and exacting styles. These similar styles combined with miraculous detail demonstrate how 500 years of art history can be linked together by two paintings.
Both paintings contain an ample variety of hidden symbols. The cast-aside clogs, found in the bottom left corner of the van Eyck portrait, indicating that the marriage is taking place on holy ground. Arnolfini’s gentle pose in stocking feet further illustrates this holy ground setting. The little dog, located at the bottom center, symbolizes fidelity, faithfulness, and love.
In the van Eyck painting, the curtains of the marriage bed have been opened, and suspended from the bedpost is a whiskbroom. This whiskbroom is a symbolic reference to domestic care in the household. In Wood’s painting, the man exhibits a pitchfork. The man was given a pitchfork to hold because Wood wanted him to be associated with haying in the 19th century rather than the more common farming practice of gardening in the 20th century.
The pitchfork also symbolized masculinity, the devil, and farming; and served as a compositional device to echo the roundness of the people’s faces and the repeated lines of the Gothic window. Van Eyck’s placement and position of the two lavishly dressed individuals suggest conventional Flemish gender roles. The typical woman stands near the bed and well inside the room, where the man stands near the open window, symbolic of the outside world.
These same gender roles are visited again in Wood’s painting with the daughter depicted behind the man, perhaps suggesting that the human male is solely responsible for the household. Wood’s also displayed social sexism by the rugged, worn overalls worn by the man while adorning the daughter with an apron trimmed with rickrack. Also notice that in both paintings that only the men look directly at the viewer. Both paintings reveal an intense amount of detail.
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