John Steuart Curry

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John Steuart Curry: Between Fear and Faith
Written by Bill North, Former Senior Curator of the Beach Museum of Art

In 1943 John Steuart Curry’s biographer, Laurence Schmeckebier, wrote that an “unceasing conflict of fear and faith absolved in the hard struggle for existence was a family heritage that enveloped the artist from his earliest youth. It motivated the tremendous development he experienced in his subsequent career.”1 Conflict between opposing forces--natural, manmade, emotional, physical, and spiritual—was a constant feature of Curry’s personal and professional life. The artist grew up on a farm in rural northeast Kansas, where profits from long days of grueling labor could be wiped from the ledger by a single, catastrophic weather event or an insect infestation. The life of an artist was a hardscrabble existence, too. Ability, dedication, and hard work were no guarantee of success and provided little protection against the vagaries of taste and the art market. Curry’s tragically short life was filled with conflict and struggle.

Like many American artists who found their voice during the troubled years between World War One and World War Two, Curry turned to the familiar: life in rural America. His experience growing up on a farm provided a rich source of subjects, especially animals. He was particularly interested in dramatic scenes of confrontation between predator and prey, or animals of the same species vying for dominance. In A Cat Throwing a Mouse (1922, plate 7), an early study in watercolor and charcoal, a spring-loaded feline treats its prey like a disposable toy. Caught in mid-pounce, front claws fully extended, the cat seems sure to make quick work of the defenseless mouse. Curry’s Hogs Fighting (1938, plate 8) presents a more evenly-matched fight. In this farmyard dustup, two large hogs go head-to-head. The animals’ crossed snouts in the foreground dominate the image, nearly bursting into the viewer’s space with a palpable sense of menace. This watercolor and charcoal work is related to Hogs Killing a Rattlesnake (1925), purportedly one of the artist’s favorite watercolors.2 Curry produced numerous variations of the latter composition, including his celebrated oil of the same title in 1930, now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Violent weather, a feature of life in Kansas, was another favored subject of Curry’s. One of his best-known paintings is Tornado (1929), a large oil canvas now in the collection of the Muskegon Museum of Art, Muskegon, Michigan. This scene of impending disaster shows a farm family and gathered pets heading for the storm cellar as a fearsome twister approaches. The following year, Curry produced several paintings in which he depicts the aftermath of a devastating tornado in what are among his most surreal images. The source for this body of work is a group of sketches the artist made in May 1930 on a visit back home to Kansas. He arrived not long after a tornado had devastated the town of Winchester in Jefferson County near the Curry farmstead. In his oil Winchester Tornado (1930, figure 2) we witness the often freakish results of which such storms are capable. Standing unscathed amid the ruins of a house and blasted trees is a hutch on whose shelves two hurricane lamps and other items still stand, utterly undisturbed.

The land on which the artist was born and raised in Jefferson County, Kansas, had a turbulent history. The Curry family farmstead was very near the site of the Battle of Hickory Point, a violent skirmish between Free-Staters and pro-slavery forces waged in the nascent Kansas territory in September 1856.3 Two of the antislavery settlers who participated in the battle, William Breyman and Samuel Reader, were artists and recorded their observations of the encounter in drawings and paintings.4 Many decades later, Curry would take up the subject of slavery and social injustice in his paintings and prints. Among these, his Tragic Prelude: John Brown (1937‒42) mural in the state capital in Topeka stands as the artist’s most powerful expression of antislavery sentiment. In 1939 Curry painted an easel portrait of the wild-eyed abolitionist based on a detail of his Topeka mural. The painting, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, provided the basis for Curry’s 1939 lithograph of the same title (plate 9).

Curry’s personal ideas and beliefs about law and justice were shaped as much by his experience growing up in Kansas as by historical events. Manhunt (1931), a prelude to a lynching, is based on his memories of events much like the one shown in the painting and a related watercolor study (figure 3).5 Now in the collection of the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, Manhunt depicts a Kansas lynch mob tracking its victim. Curry’s 1931 lithograph of the same title is based on the Joslyn painting and was published by the Contemporary Print Group in New York as part of “The American Scene, Series 2,” a portfolio featuring prints by Curry, Thomas Hart Benton, William Gropper, Russell Limbach, Charles Locke, and Raphael Soyer. Manhunt, the painting and the lithograph, were included in “An Art Commentary on Lynching,” a 1935 exhibition organized by the NAACP in association with the College Art Association.6 At the time of the exhibition, Manhunt (the painting) was in the collection of Arthur B. Springarn, vice president of the NAACP.7 Curry’s lithograph The Fugitive, another lynching scene, appeared on the cover of the exhibition’s catalogue.

In 1926 Curry found himself at an artistic crossroad. Three years earlier, he had married Clara Derrick, a young woman from Jamesburg, New Jersey. Curry was living in Leonia, New Jersey, at the time, where he began his career as a freelance illustrator. After the wedding, the newlyweds moved to Greenich Village, where they lived for a brief period before settling in Westport, Connecticut. By this time, he “was perfectly clear in his own mind about what he wanted to express [in his work]. The struggle and the uncertainty came in the problem of how it was to be expressed.”8 For the previous five years, Curry had been able to support himself as an illustrator, producing work for popular magazines. As he developed as an artist, the character of his illustrations changed. Art editors complained that his work increasingly looked more like studio paintings than commercial illustrations. In order to continue as a successful artist, Curry had to choose between reverting to his commercially viable approach to image making or following his desire to become a studio painter. To do the latter, he realized, would require further training in his craft.

In October 1926, with financial assistance from Seward Prosser, a banker and art patron, Curry and his bride traveled to Paris, the art capital of the world at the time.9 There, he studied drawing for eight months in the studio of Basil Schoukhaieff, a Russian academician.

Gargoyle, Notre Dame (1927, plate 2), a watercolor Curry created while in Paris, is further evidence of the artist’s abiding attraction to scenes of bestial violence. The image is a view of a pair of chimeras, ornamental fantastic beasts also known as gargoyles, created as part of the nineteenth-century restoration of the medieval Parisian cathedral.10 These grotesque creatures were the work of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814‒1879), a French Gothic Revival architect known for his interpretive, creatively modified restorations. They are part of the architect’s Galerie des Chimères, an addition to the original structure along the church’s western facade. Though Viollet-le-Duc’s beasts evoke the work of an anonymous medieval craftsman, they are a wholly nineteenth-century creation. Curry has chosen to focus on the more horrific of the pair, “le Rongeur” (the rodent), a ghastly hybridized creature with a dog-lion head, monstrous teeth, and  human torso and arms who gnaws and shreds the flesh of its prey.

Curry’s return to America was marked by a renewed sense of purpose and direction, in part a result of having spent time in the Louvre, where he became enamoured with the work of old masters such as the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577‒1640). The artist is reported to have said of his time in Paris, “I grew up. I discovered my tradition. I discovered Rubens.”11 Curry’s Battle of Amazons (1928‒29, figure 5), is an oil painting created in his Westport, Connecticut, studio. It is based on a 1926 watercolor he made while in Paris and testifies to the transformative nature of his European experience.12 Inspired by the battle and hunt scenes of Rubens and Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), the nineteenth-century French romantic artist, the painting is dominated by a writhing mass of fleshy nudes and horses locked in mortal combat. Curry applied the lessons of Rubens to his many action studies of collegiate football players produced on the campus  of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was artist-in-residence in the College of Agriculture from 1936 until his death in 1946. In drawings such as Football, Study for Touchdown (1938, figure 4), the contorted forms of the gridiron combatants are rendered with a convincing corporeality that recalls the twisting warriors in Battle of the Amazons.

As Curry was finding his stride as an artist, his personal life was slipping into a deepening crisis. The artist’s wife Clara suffered from serious depression. His sensitive Portrait of Clara Derrick Curry (1926, plate 6) reveals a glimpse of the subject’s troubled state. Clara’s slightly slouching posture and heavy, forlorn eyes suggest the weight of her burden and portend dark days. The economic pressures wrought by the crash of 1929 and the impending Depression also took a toll on the artist, a situation exacerbated by Curry’s lack of sales. It was during this period that he turned to religion as a source for his images. Laurence Schmeckebier wrote: “The much talked of prosperity of the years before October, 1929, meant nothing to him [Curry]. He was poor. He was working hard against adversity, trying desperately to reconcile the conflict between his ambitions and his seemingly insurmountable shortcomings....Faced with his sometimes unbearable feeling of inadequacy and frustration he, like Van Gogh, sought a spiritual release through the intensified study of reality and form which in turn found expression in representations of man’s struggle with his own emotions, i.e. in the religious scene.”13

Curry’s preference was not for grand biblical subjects, but rather scenes of grassroots revivalism observed in his native Kansas or nearby. His lithograph Gospel Train (1930) is related to a painting of the same title and is based on the artist’s observation of a Pentecostal gathering in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1929.14 The ecstatic flailing of the dancing worshipers and the raucous character of the evangelical service would have appealed to Curry’s penchant for drama. His painting Salvation is the Rock (1934) is a more sophisticated example of the artist’s evangelical imagery. The emotional congregants under the spell of the minister in the lower left are countered by the staid choir in the upper right. The blood-red garments of several persons, particularly the woman in the center of the composition, punctuate the dramatic, diagonal sweep of figures and heighten the drama in the otherwise monochromatic painting.

By 1932 the pressures of home and career overwhelmed the artist. Curry’s single-minded focus on his work left him with little energy to tend to the needs of his wife and her increasingly deteriorating mental state. Unable to balance familial obligations with work, Curry separated from Clara and moved to New York, where he could concentrate on his career as an artist. In April 1932 he escaped to the circus for two months, accompanying the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus on their spring tour in Manhattan, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut.15 Circus life had been of interest to the artist well before his 1932 adventure. Painted two years earlier in Westport, High Diver (1929‒37, figure 1) is one of Curry’s State Fair subjects. It does not record a specific performance, but is rather a generalized view based on the artist’s experiences in Kansas.16 Curry’s painting shows the tension-filled moment just before the performer takes her death-defying leap from the tiny platform high above the ring. In Fire Diver (1934, plate 4), a companion work, the flaming diver is seen as she plunges headlong, like a human missile, toward the ground. The more mundane aspects of circus life were of interest, too. Clowns in Dressing Tent (1932, plate 5) shows a group of circus performers in various stages of undress as they read, nap, or otherwise relax. Curry returned to New York from the circus in mid-June 1932. Less than six weeks later, Clara Derrick Curry died of heart disease at her family’s home in Jamesburg, New Jersey. Curry’s attempt to see his estranged wife on the day of her death fell short by a mere twenty minutes.17

Within two years of his wife’s passing, Curry’s life was again filled with hope. In June 1934 the artist wed Kathleen Gould (1899‒2001), a friend he met in Westport, Connecticut. His finances still on shaky ground, Curry presented his new bride with a painting, The Corn (1933, figure 9), in lieu of a wedding ring.18 A single corn stalk amid a verdant field of corn fills the nuptial canvas. Wavy leaves glinting with sunlight imbue the painting with a joyous character. The radiant silk of a single ear in the lower third of the image suggests the promise of a fresh start. Curry also decorated a wedding chest for Kathleen. The lid of the chest bears a fanciful landscape featuring a banner emblazoned with the couple’s names and a pair of hearts pierced by an arrow, above which two putti pass red roses through a golden ring, all hovering above a train track seen from a worm’s-eye-view. Garlands of roses trail the banner’s ends and run parallel along the train tracks until they recede beyond view. Much of Curry’s work from this period was similarly upbeat. Morning (1936) is a sweeping view of the Heart Ranch in south-central Kansas, a favorite sketching ground of the artist in Barber County. Osage Orange branches frame the image in the left foreground, and a Brown Thrush perched atop greets the morning with song. On the horizon, the rising sun casts its rays, enveloping the scene in golden light. The sunrise was a favorite subject of Curry’s during this period, indicative of his rising spirits. And, he often signed his personal letters with a small, simple drawing of a sunrise.

In 1936 Curry took a position as artist-in-residence in the College of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was there he would remain until his death a decade later. Curry’s final years were marked by triumphs and disappointments, much like the rest of his life and career. Paintings such as View of Madison (Rainbow and View of Madison) (1937) and Valley of the Wisconsin (1941, figure 10), evoke the optimism of his earlier sunrise paintings. The former, his first Wisconsin landscape after becoming artist-in-residence, shows the dome of the state’s capitol in the far distance, centered under a rainbow like a gleaming pot of gold. Valley of the Wisconsin, a majestic view of the verdant Wisconsin landscape, recalls the artist’s Wisconsin Landscape (1937‒39), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It was while living in Madison that Curry undertook the most ambitious project of his career, the Kansas Statehouse murals in Topeka. Begun in 1937, the mural project was beset with controversy.19 Critics leveled petty charges of inaccuracy with respect to the manner in which pigs’ tails curl and the color of Hereford bulls. There was considerable public outrage over Curry’s decision to prominently feature John Brown and include aspects of Kansas life such as tornadoes and prairie fires. These criticisms echoed those many Kansans had expressed throughout the artist’s career, that Curry’s work perpetuated the negative stereotypes associated with their state. The artist responded by writing: “The theme I have chosen is historical in more than one case. In great measure it is the historical struggle of man with nature. This struggle has been a determining factor in my art expression. It is my family’s tradition and the tradition of a great majority of Kansas people. And though I fully realize the importance of Kansans in the fields of politics and the various phases of education and human welfare, these phases are removed from my vital experience and that experience is necessary for me to make a forceful art expression.”20

Curry’s Study for Kansas Pastoral:The Unmortgaged Farm (ca. 1936, figure 6), a large drawing for the mural along the south wall of the capital, is a stagelike panorama of the Kansas landscape idealized. The foliage along the left side serves as a curtain drawn to reveal orderly haystacks and a grazing Hereford in the foreground, Curry’s familiar beaming sunrise in the background, and a fecund landscape in between. About this scene the artist wrote: “I have been accused of seeing only the dark and seamy side of my native state. In these panels I shall show the beauty of real things under the hand of a beneficent Nature—and we can suppose in  these panels that the farm depicted is unmortgaged—that grain and cattle prices are rising on the Kansas City and Chicago markets—so that we as farmers, patrons, and artists can shout happily together. ‘Ad Astra Per Aspera.’”21 In the end, the murals were not completed. The state legislature refused to authorize the removal of marble slabs on the wall in the central rotunda to make way for the artist’s scenes from the life of the Kansas homesteader. As a gesture of defiance, Curry refused to sign his work.

In 1946, four years after he stopped work on the Kansas Statehouse murals, John Steuart Curry died of a heart attack. He went to his grave a relatively young man, still caught between fear and faith and too young to see history’s vindication of his life’s work.



1 Laurence E. Schmeckebier, John Steuart Curry’s Pageant of America (New York: American Artists Group, 1943), 9.
2 Ibid., 30.
3 For an account of the battle, see George A. Root, ed., “The First Day’s Battle at Hickory Point,” Kansas Historical Quarterly 1, no. 1 (November 1931): 28-49.
4 Examples of Breyman’s and Reader’s Hickory Point images are held by the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka. See William Breyman, Photograph, Battle of Hickory Point, 1856, Kansas State Historical Society, Territorial Kansas Online,; Samuel Reader, Diary, May 23, 1855 through December 31, 1857, Kansas State Historical Society, Territorial Kansas Online,; Samuel Reader, Painting, Battle of Hickory Point, Kansas State Historical Society, Territorial Kansas Online,
5 Schmeckebier, John Steuart Curry’s Pageant of America, 267.
6 For information on the exhibition and Curry’s involvement, see M. Sue Kendall, “Alien Corn: An Artist on the Middle Border,” in Patricia Junker et al., John Steuart Curry: Inventing the Middle West (New York and Madison, WI: Hudson Hills Press, Inc., in association with the Elvehjem Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1998), 176.
7 Ibid.
8 Schmeckebier, John Steuart Curry’s Pageant of America, 34.
9 Patricia Junker, “The Life and Career of John Steuart Curry: An Annotated Chronology,” in Junker et al., John Steuart Curry: Inventing the Middle West, 216.
10 For information on the Notre-Dame gargoyles, see Michael Camille, The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009).
11 “Circus Limner Terms P.W.A. Best Art Spur,” New York Herald Tribune, April 29, 1934; quoted in Junker, “The Life and Career of John Steuart Curry: An Annotated Chronology,” in Junker et al., John Steuart Curry: Inventing the Middle West, 216.
12 Schmeckebier, John Steuart Curry’s Pageant of America, 56, 58.
13 Ibid., 91.
14 Ibid., 100.
15 Patricia Junker, “John Steuart Curry and the Pathos of Modern Life: Paintings of the Outcast and the Dispossessed,” in Junker et al., John Steuart Curry: Inventing the Middle West, 154.
16 Schmeckebier, John Steuart Curry’s Pageant of America, 212-14.
17 Curry to Maynard Walker, August 1, 1932, Maynard Walker Gallery records, 1847‒1973, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, microfilm roll 2023, frames 24-25; quoted in Junker “The Life and Career of John Steuart Curry: An Annotated Chronology,” in Junker et al., John Steuart Curry: Inventing the Middle West, 221-22.
18 Henry Adams, “The Corn,” Images of the 20th Century (Lincoln, NE: Kiechel Fine Art, 2011).
19 The best source of information on the mural controversy is M. Sue Kendall, Rethinking Regionalism: John Steuart Curry and the Kansas Mural Controversy (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986).
20 John Steuart Curry, Description of Murals for Kansas State Capital, undated typescript, John Steuart Curry and Curry family papers, 1900‒1999, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Box 4, Folder 23,
21 Ibid.