Passing Americana

December 18, 1990

Few people would recognize the name of Nan Graham, but almost everyone would know her if they saw her. Nan Wood Graham, the sister of painter Grant Wood, posed for her brother 70 years ago with Byron McKeeby, an Iowa dentist, for "American Gothic" -- a portrait of Americana which has since become a part of artistic folklore.

The painting portrays a tight-lipped woman and a dour farmer with pitchfork standing in front of a cottage in Eldon, Iowa. It initially provoked controversy when angry Iowa women protested the drab, sterile image Wood painted of them. Controversy dogged the work as late as 1977, when Hustler magazine ran a topless version of American Gothic, and Graham sued (and lost) for defamation of character and invasion of privacy.

Along the way, however, Graham gained a degree of popularity that would otherwise have been beyond the reach of an Anamosa, Iowa girl. She once said that if her brother had used another model, as he originally planned, her life would have been "very drab," and she would ended her days remembered as "the world's worst stenographer."

Nan Graham died last week remembered, instead, as the woman whose portrait hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. And nobody even knew that she went to secretarial school.

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