How Classic Paintings Influence ‘American Gothic’

Showrunner Corinne Brinkerhoff talks with THR about the hidden gems in each episode of the CBS summer drama.
Christos Kalohoridis/CBS

American Gothic is more than meets the eye.

The new CBS drama centers on a prominent Boston family and their secrets, and to hear showrunner Corinne Brinkerhoff tell it, features a nod to classical pieces of art in each episode.

The artistic gems should come as no surprise as the series itself shares its name with a famous painting — American Gothic by Grant Wood, which features a pitchfork-toting farmer with a female companion standing in front of a gothic-style ranch home. It's perhaps one of the most recognizable 20th century American works.

“One of my favorite elements of the show is off of the fact it’s called American Gothic and the family is collectors of fine art,” Brinkerhoff tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We have artists in the family and it is sort of in the fabric of the show already.”

The artists in the Hawthorne family include Cam (Justin Chatwin), a cartoonist, and his possible serial-killer-in-the-making offspring Jack (Gabriel Bateman), who has a passion for drawing dead animals.

Each episode of the drama series is titled after and shows admiration for a famous painting. “We chose a painting that had some thematic resonance with that chapter of our story,” Brinkerhoff explains. “We also looked for a moment that within the frame we could put an homage to the actual painting itself. Those kinds of things distinguish us in a way where it’s not high concept, but there’s details if you’re paying close attention add another layer to the show.”

The pilot episode, titled "Arrangement in Grey and Black,” gets its inspiration from a painting of the same name that is better known as “Whistler’s Mother” by American artist James McNeill Whistler in 1871. The piece often referred to as a “Victorian Mona Lisa,” is an oil painting of the artist’s mom. The details in the episode pay tribute to the work, ranging from props to specific emotional moments with the characters.

“In the pilot at the very end, Virginia [Madsen] has a moment where she looks very much like Whistler’s mother from ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black,’” Brinkerhoff says. “Gabe, who plays Jack, made these little floral arrangements in grey and black. If you look carefully they are in the background several times in the pilot. That was Gabe's idea. There’s details like that that we had a lot of fun with in terms of set dec. We also have the weird twisted cat storyline, which we have the twins in bed wearing cat pajamas and they have little cat ballet flats.”

"The second episode, named after a Georgia O’Keefe piece follows suit. ‘“Jack in the Pulpit" is a Georgia O’Keeffe painting of a flower, which we re-created in the episode at a memorial service. At that same service we have our little Jack, our budding psychopath, go up to the pulpit and give a speech,” Brinkerhoff reveals. “We have a literal Jack in the Pulpit as well as the homage to the painting.”

Viewers should also keep an eye out for not only subtle hints to the pieces themselves, but also other clues in the background pointing to menacing things within the family dynamic. “We are trying to tie all these little pieces together in a fun way where you have to really be paying attention to catch,” Brinkerhoff says. “The kitchen counter is made of concrete, which is the family business ... Jack wears a T-shirt with an off-center octopus, which is exactly the octopus tattoo that Cam has.”

There will undoubtedly be similar tributes in the upcoming episodes with titles like “Nighthawks,” the name of an oil canvas painting by Edward Hopper depicting people in a downtown diner late at night; and episode four, titled “Christina’s World,” which shares a name with a famous Andrew Wyeth work. “That was a really fun challenge for us to figure out. What is the right title,” Brinkerhoff says. “What is the right painting that’s going to both resonate cinematically, and also how are we going to organically get our story to a place where we can find that frame.”

American Gothic airs Wednesdays on CBS.

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