A window into artist Grant Wood

Before “American Gothic” and his other paintings, artist Grant Wood left his mark at the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Wood, who grew up in Cedar Rapids, designed a 24-foot stained-glass window for the memorial, which was dedicated in 1929. It proved to be a turning point in Wood's career. Now, his sketchbook from the project is going up for auction.

On Sunday, Leslie Hindman Auctioneers of Chicago is offering the 48-page book, which contains more than 70 pencil drawings by Wood from 1927 to '29. The small journal is signed by Wood on the cover. There's a 1946 inscription inside the front cover from his sister, Nan Wood Graham, that identifies the book as Wood's work on the memorial window.

The sketches are a departure from the artist's best known works, which celebrated the Midwest and its people in a regionalism style, an art form popular in the 1930s.

Even Mary Kohnke, director of books and manuscripts at Leslie Hindman, was surprised when she saw the sketchbook earlier this year.

“I thought the images didn't look anything like what we think Grant Wood's work to be,” she said. “They're very classical and fully devoted to the development of the stained-glass window.”

The finished window, the only stained-glass window known to have been designed by Wood, features a dominant figure, a woman variously described as the Lady of Peace and Victory or Lady of Mourning. Beneath her are life-size images of six soldiers from the conflicts the United States had been engaged in up until that time: the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and World War I.

“The breadth of ideas he put into this work was phenomenal,” Kohnke said.

The window project also proved to be a defining moment for Wood, according to Sean Ulmer, curator of collections and exhibitions at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, which houses the largest collection of Wood's work in the world.

In his younger days, Wood's work tended to be impressionistic; in his more mature period, he developed a regionalism style. The change, experts say, was precipitated by his trip to Germany to oversee the fabrication of the window by the Emil Frei Glass Co.

“It was there that he saw Northern Renaissance paintings,” Ulmer explained. “That developed his style. He had been to Paris, had even studied there, and came back with important experience. But the trip to Germany was revelatory for him.”

Wood was exposed to 15th- and 16th-century German and Flemish paintings, with their rolling landscapes and portraits. He brought those ideas home and incorporated them into his most famous works. Ulmer said the physical limitations of a stained-glass window, with its leading and firm exterior lines, also stuck with Wood as he developed his style.

“(This) encourages him to paint with firmer exterior lines, which is what you see in paintings like ‘American Gothic' (1930), where he has abandoned his earlier style of impressionism for firmer lines, smoother transitions of light and color,” Ulmer said. “This trip, this window, caused him to think differently.”

The sketchbook belongs to a private collection; Kohnke declined to identify the owner or the owner's city. The book's existence has been known to a few experts, but not many. Ulmer said he was unaware of it until a couple of years ago.

His first viewing of the sketchbook was a couple of years ago, he said. The museum has a collection of Wood's finished drawings for the project, life-sized and very detailed, that he took with him to Germany. The sketchbook was Wood's starting point and gives an indication of his thought process as he worked on the project.

“I remember being struck by the number of sources he was looking at when he was thinking of how to compose this window, especially the primary figure in the window,” Ulmer said. “He was looking at figures like Michelangelo's Pieta. You know he was aware of Greek and Roman statuary. He was looking for antecedents, public pieces where heroes, or religious figures in the case of the Pieta, are portrayed, and he tries to translate that into a new original composition he was creating to honor the veterans in that window.”

The book not only touches on those areas but things such as precise details of soldiers' uniforms. Two pages are devoted to Roman numerals, as Wood struggled to make them fit in the space he had to work in. Winged Victory and Justice, holding her scales, are also there. One drawing shows soldiers marching through a cornfield, another of the sketches that never panned out.

“It was really hard for him,” Kohnke said. “He had to get the perspective, and he wanted to do so much more. You can tell from the sketches. But he couldn't make it work.” Grant Wood's sketchbook is part of Leslie Hindman's American and European Art Auction, which starts at noon Sunday at 1338 W. Lake St. in Chicago. The sketchbook will be available for public viewing starting Wednesday. More information is available at

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