Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939
Oil on canvas
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas
Mason Locke Weems (1756–1825), known as Parson Weems, penned the legendary fable about George Washington and the cherry tree in the fifth edition of his book The Life of Washington the Great (1806). With the rise of fascism in the 1930s, this moralizing tale appealed deeply to the artist Grant Wood, who wanted to bolster the country's patriotism by visualizing Weems' folklore on canvas. In this painting, Wood presents Parson Weems as a creator of lore, drawing back the curtain and gesturing toward a six-year-old Washington confessing to his father that he did in fact cut down the cherry tree. As a visual pun, Wood rendered the boy as the father of the country wearing the head from Gilbert Stuart's Athenaeum portrait, which to this day graces the one-dollar bill. The moral of Weems' story was about the father's successful approach to child rearing, since a young Washington felt he could tell his father the truth. Yet Wood depicted Washington's father as cross and unforgiving, perhaps because his own father was stern and intolerant of Wood's decision to become an artist. Using his own life experience to influence a picture of historic lore, Wood reminds us that paintings, like fables, are constructed.
Grant Wood (1891–1942) was born and raised in Iowa. Previously trained in jewelry making, metalworking, and woodworking, he took painting and drawing classes at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1913–16. Along with artists Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) and John Steuart Curry (1897–1946), he became one of America's best-known Regionalists, a group of twentieth century American artists who rejected the abstract, modernist styles of European art and, instead, depicted American rural life in a clearly readable, realistic style. Wood traveled to Europe four times to study art, and he admired the early Flemish and German painters' ability to depict mythological and biblical subjects in contemporary costumes and settings, making them more relevant to their viewers. Wood returned to Iowa where he dedicated himself to applying these ideas to his depictions of ordinary life. Throughout his career, he remained committed to depicting American regional life in a uniquely national style.