John Steuart Curry (November 14, 1897 - August 29, 1946) was an American
painter whose career spanned from 1924 - 1946; he was noted for his paintings
depicting life in his home state, Kansas.
John Steuart Curry (November 14, 1897 - August 29, 1946) was an American painter
whose career spanned from 1924 - 1946; he was noted for his paintings depicting
life in his home state, Kansas. Along with Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, he
was hailed as one of the three great painters of American Regionalism of the
first half of the twentieth century.
John Steuart Curry was born on a farm in Dunavaunt, Kansas, November 14, 1897.
Curry was the eldest of five children to parents Smith and Margaret Curry.
Despite growing up on a Midwestern farm, both of Curry’s parents were college
educated and had even visited Europe for their honeymoon. Curry’s early life
consisted of caring for the animals on the farm, attending the near by high
school and excelling in athletics. His childhood home was filled with many
reproductions of Peter Paul Rubens and Gustav Doré, and these artist’s styles
played a significant role in crafting John Curry’s own style.
His family was very religious as were most people in Dunavaunt. Curry was
encouraged to paint animals around the farm and at the age of twelve he had his
first art lesson. In 1916 John entered the Kansas City Art Institute, but after
only a month there he transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he
stayed for two years. In 1918 he attended Geneva College in Beaver Falls,
Pennsylvania. After he graduated, Curry worked as an illustrator from 1921-1926.
He worked for several magazines including Boys Life, St. Nicholas, County
Gentleman,and The Saturday Evening Post,.
In 1926 Curry spent a year in Paris studying the works of Gustave Courbet, and
Honore Daumier as well as the color techniques of Titian and Rubens. After his
return to the United States he settled in New York City and married Clara
Derrick, shortly thereafter they moved to Westport, Connecticut in 1924. Clara
died in June of 1932 and for the next two years Curry devoted his time to
working in his studio. He traveled with the Ringling Brothers Circus and during
his time with them created his painting The Flying Cadonas. He remarried in 1934
to Kathleen Gould. The Federal Art Project was instituted in 1934 as a way to
give work to artists and alleviate the effects of the Great Depression. In 1936,
Curry was appointed as the first artist in residence at the Agricultural College
of the University of Wisconsin. He was free to travel throughout the state and
promote art in farming communities by providing personal instruction to
students. This same year he was commissioned to paint a mural for the Department
of Justice Building in Washington, DC. and for the Department of the
Interior. He was also commissioned by his home state of Kansas to paint a
mural for the State Capitol at Topeka. Curry continued to work until he died of
a heart attack at the age of 48 in 1946.
Curry was part of the Midwestern Triumvirate of American Regionalism which
included Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood; these men were hailed as the three
great painters of Regionalism. Regionalism was associated with the area
beyond the Mississippi, mainly Iowa, Missouri and Kansas. The artists who were
associated with Regionalism were concerned with rural nostalgia, and the
American heartland. Regionalism was essentially a revolt against at least one
major evil of the industrial revolution: centralization. Centralization of
manufacturing established low cost efficient factories and assembly line
production, which promoted mass production and reduced individual
characteristics. Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Great Depression
heightened dissatisfaction with capitalism. Rugged depictions of independent
life with wide open space provided distractions for those in financial crisis.
According to Meyer Schapiro, "Regionalism obscured the crucial forces of
history, as defined by Marx, and provided entertaining distractions from the
realities facing oppressed people." Curry depicted representations of
families surviving natural disaster in his man versus nature images. This theme
was most certainly relevant during the Depression in the Midwest, which was
thrown into economic turmoil due to lack job opportunities and income.Tornado
Over Kansas reflects Curry’s observance of nature and expresses his view of his
home state, Kansas.
Curry was best known for his oil paintings and mural cycles. In August of 1928
Curry painted Baptism in Kansas, which was exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in
Washington, DC. The painting was praised by the New York Times and earned Curry
the attention of Mrs. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. In 1931 Mrs. Vanderbilt
Whitney purchased the painting for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New
York City, thus establishing him as a major artist. Baptism in Kansas reflected
the fanatic religious sects that held open-air baptisms. These popular religious
groups were part of the scene of rural life that Curry saw in Kansas.
Traditional religious scenes are depicted by Curry with all the reverence one
would expect from such a subject. No well known Baptismal representations by old
world masters employ the unique compositional layout that Curry favors. Curry's
painting was a shock to Easterners who would have never associated a baptism
with full immersion or with a barn yard setting, but Curry painted what he was
familiar with, as Lawrence Shmeckebrier said he "saw this scene as conceived and
executed with sincere reverence and understanding of one who had lived it."
Curry's religious painting is therefore an observance rather than a satire on
Under Mrs. Whitney's patronage Curry painted Tornado Over Kansas, which depicts
a farmer facing an approaching tornado while his wife helps the family and pets
into the tornado shelter. The painting was unveiled in 1929 just before the Wall
Street Crash in October and provided those in the city with the romance of man
versus nature themes. During the 1930s Curry's work embraced the heartland of
America and focused in particular on his home state of Kansas. He depicted
scenes of labor, family, and land, in order to demonstrate peace, struggle, and
perseverance that he had come to believe was the essence of American life.
Curry’s works were painted with movement which was conveyed by the free brush
work and energized forms (that characterized his style.) His control over
brushstrokes created excited emotions such as fear and despair in his paintings.
His fellow Regionalists who also painted action and movement influenced Curry’s
Curry's most famous works were the murals designed for the Kansas State Capitol,
in Topeka, Kansas. In June of 1937, newspaper editors raised money to commission
John Steuart Curry (who was the most famous artist in Kansas) to paint murals in
the statehouse. Curry’s design was divided into three themes: first the
Settlement of Kansas, which depicted the Conquistadors and the Plainsmen; second
the Life of a Homesteader, which would depict John Brown; and third, Pastoral
Prosperity which would include scenes of modern Kansas. Curry wanted to be free
to express his own ideas regarding the murals: "I have my own ideas about
telling the story of pioneers coming into Kansas. I want to paint this war with
nature and I want to paint the things I feel as a native Kansan." Political
controversy stalled the completion of the murals. Expensive Italian marble slabs
covered the spot in the rotunda where the eight panels depicting scenes from the
Life of the Kansas Homesteader were to be painted. The legislative committee
refused to move them from the wall to make way for Curry’s mural. However,
behind the refusal were two real issues with Curry’s paintings. The first being
that Curry’s factual details were incorrect. For instance, "they criticized the
tails of his animals calling them not natural- like."In Curry’s opinion those
problems could be easily fixed. However, with the next issue the committee had
an even stronger objection; and that was the image of Kansan abolitionist John
Brown in front of a crowd of people and a tornado. It was the cause of great
debate. In particular the committee objected to the blood on John Brown’s hands,
the prairie fires, and tornadoes. These inclusions were thought by some to show
the state in a negative light. John Brown led the armed raid on Harpers Ferry in
1859. He was considered a traitor and executed for murder. Curry, tried to
explain that while the blood on Brown’s hands was not literal, but his acts
caused bloodshed. The tornado was a symbol of the abolitionist’s passion.
However, the people of Kansas saw its inclusion as a negative statement about
bad weather.In his presentation to the people, Curry expressed that he wanted
to get into his pictures the iron that is the Kansas people; not a soft, soppy
presentation.When rejected Curry, in anger left the finished murals unsigned
at his death in 1946. Since Curry's death his murals have come to be regarded as
on par with similar works done by his contemporary Thomas Hart Benton.
John Steuart Curry's Tragic Prelude
(1938-1940), a mural in the Kansas Statehouse illustrating
John Brown and the clash of forces in
Curry’s art in general was conservative in political content. He believed that
art was for the common person. He did not believe in political propaganda,
particularly the Marxist kind that Diego Rivera popularized in the 1930’s. Curry
avoided exploiting the controversial subjects in which Rivera became involved
because, he did not believe they added any artistic quality to his work.
However, Curry did create a few political sketches or studies, but these were
never expanded on for larger projects. Rather, he enjoyed observing public
events and capturing them on paper.
Curry's few semi-political paintings evolved out of his personal experiences
rather than created as a display of social commentary. The Return of Private
Davis completed in 1940 was first witnessed near his home in 1918, and a similar
study was made in France during 1926. Schmeckenbier relates this painting to the
Baptism: "a rural religious ceremony whose tragedy is intensified by the
realization that this son of the fresh green Kansas prairies was sacrificed on a
battlefield whose ideological remoteness was as dramatic as its geographical
makeup." The painting does not express a political spectacle, rather Curry’s
personal feelings. Conversely, Parade to War depicts departing soldiers rather
than the return of a victim of war. Curry was working in a time period fraught
with turmoil; he was working during the Great Depression, which was flanked on
each side by a World War. He was inspired by a massive anti-war sentiment that
was reflected in literary works such as All Quiet on the Western Front. Curry
experienced personally the effects of war and portrays personal tragedy,
suffering and death in these paintings.
Along with war scenes Curry also produced a number of manhunt and fugitive
subjects. These ideas were inspired by remembrances from his own childhood, but
were also observed from publicized events during the early 1930’s. The
kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby son and John Dillinger’s crime
spree were well known and public deaths such as lynchings were often the result
of such crimes. These earlier political works would influence later Curry’s
mural work in the Department of Justice Building.
Despite popularity among the rest of the country, native Kansans were less than
thrilled with his works. What Curry believed to be images that expressed
positive virtues about the place he remembered from childhood were conceived to
be making fun of the worst aspects of the state. Kansans found the inclusion of
outdoor baptisms and tornados to perpetuate negative stereotypes associated with
Kansas and lead to public embarrassment. Curry had sought to capture the
pastoral serenity of the Kansas landscape but when these paintings were
displayed in New York galleries the already overwhelming inferiority complex
among Kansans grew and they were humiliated by Curry’s paintings. Resentment
grew, as the chamber of commerce needed Curry’s paintings as much as it needed
other proponents of stereotypes such as the Wizard of Oz, which was released in
1939. However, New York audiences were fascinated by Curry’s paintings. They
were exhausted by the commercialization that surrounded their everyday lives and
Curry’s paintings were entertaining and allowed them to view a more primitive
and isolated version of America. Only recently, with the (1992) Statehouse
purchase of the drawings related to his murals has Curry's work become
appreciated by residents of Kansas.
List of Art Works
Baptism in Kansas, oil on canvas, 1928, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Corn, oil on canvas, 1935, Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, Kansas.
Storm Over Lake Otsego, oil on canvas, 1929, collection of Mrs. Polly Thayer
Starr, Boston, Massachusetts.
Spring Shower, oil on canvas, 1931, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
The Flying Cadonas, oil and tempera on panel, 1932, Whitney Museum of American
Art, New York City.
The Line Storm, oil and tempera on panel, 1934, collection of Sidney Howard, New
The Medicine Man, oil on canvas, 1931, collection of William Benton, Chicago,
The Roadworkers Camp, oil on canvas, 1929, F.M. Hall Collection, University of
The Runaway, oil on canvas, 1932, collection of Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr,
The Tornado, oil on canvas, 1929, Hackley Art Gallery, Muskegon, Michigan.
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