John Steuart Curry

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John Steuart Curry: The Man and His Art
Written by Vivian Kiechel, PhD

John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton are generally regarded as the Big Three of the American Regionalist Movement of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. I would like to focus on John Steuart Curry: the man and his art.

Over the past six years, I’ve had the unique opportunity to get to know his widow, Kathleen Curry, initially as her dealer and representative of the John Steuart Curry Estate, and now, as her friend.  At 101, she’s a vital, energetic person who lives independently in Connecticut.  In fact, she mows her own lawn, scoops snow, and until recent years, drove her own car.  On my last trip to see her, we discussed this faded photograph of her in her native England.  I said, “Kathleen, I didn’t know that you were a riveter in WWII.”  She said, “Heavens no, my dear.  I was an asthetalene welder …and it was WWI, 1914!”

We spent many hours in her living room as she talked about her husband and his art.  She viewed the term “Regionalism” as a problematic and arbitrary classification, particularly when viewed in terms of one art historian’s terminology: a form of realism that involved picturesque, nostalgic scenes of rural America that lack sophistication.  This is simply not the case.

Much of Curry’s art addressed the pressing political and social issues of his day.  Instead of being isolated and unsophisticated, he openly drew on European influences and enriched the fabric of American Art.

John Steuart Curry was born in 1897 to livestock farmers Thomas Smith and Margaret Curry of Dunavant, Kansas.  John, their firstborn, fondly remembered the treasured souvenirs that his parents brought back from their European honeymoon: art reproductions from the masters that hung on their walls.

At about the time that Kathleen and her friends were welding, John Steuart Curry was tethering his dad’s horses to the back of their Kansas barn for sketching sessions.  On the East Coast, the art scene was volatile.  The Great Armory Show of New York had become a lightning rod for controversy.  “Pathological” was the word used by the NY Times to describe the European art shown in the 67th St. armory.   It was an eruption of isms:  cubism, futurism, dadaism.  Marcel Du Champ’s futuristic Nude Descending a Staircase was compared to an “explosion in a shingle factory.”  Others called it a “menace to public morality.”  The art world seemed overwhelmed by European influence.

Only one year after the show, Europe was facing a more serious, global conflict: WWI.By war’s end, many Americans died on foreign soil.  Disillusionment and shattered idealism led our nation to search for its own unique identity.  Mark Twain and Walt Whitman became popular literary figures.  In fact, Curry went on to illustrate “Leaves of Grass” in 1934.  Edward Alden Jewell of the NY Times championed an indigenously American art that was realistic in style and traditional in subject matter, one in which artists would focus on The American Scene.

Curry’s works never deviated far from the America he knew.  But, in 1916 Curry left the family farm for good. His education was scattered: one month at KCAI where no one remembered him; one and one half terms at the Chicago Art Institute; and a year at Geneva College, a strict Scott’s Presbyterian institution.  Ever appreciative of parental support, Curry wrote: “If I can’t be an artist, I’ll be nothing.  I’m not a scholar, and I hate to haul manure.”

By the early 20’s, Curry had moved to Leonia, NJ, and worked intermittently for illustrator Harvey Dunn.  In 1923 he married Clara Derrick and in 1924 the couple moved to Westport, Connecticut, a Mecca for artists and intellectuals of the East Coast. Encouraged to develop his drawing skills, and with a small stipend, Curry sought training in Paris at Basil Schoukhaieff’s Russian drawing academy, where he won praise at the student show.  By the end of the 1920’s all three regionalists had studied in Europe.

Painting what he knew was a natural part of John Steuart Curry’s art.  The first piece to receive attention in the New York press was “Baptism in Kansas, 1928.”  Jewell called it “a gorgeous piece of satire…religious fanaticism of the hinterlands saturates the scene….Kansas has found her Homer.”  Curry denied the satirical intent.  He wrote: “I was in a state of desperation trying to get along at illustration, or anything I could do.  I took a month off and painted this picture.  It was painted without notes or sketches from memory of a baptism that took place in 1915.”

The rewards for public praise were immediate: a two-year stipend from Mrs. Whitney of $50 per week and admission into the Whitney Studio Club of New York.  She purchasedthe painting for her new museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art.  In 1930 she posed proudly beside the painting at her opening.  Signature works such as “The Tornado,” “Gospel Train” and “Manhunt”followed quickly thereafter. Critics hailed him as having “a brush capable of speaking American without an accent.”

However, reception in Curry’s native Kansas wasn’t as warm.  Mrs. Henry J. Allen, wife of the former Governor wrote: “to say he portrays the spirit of Kansas is entirely wrong…to be sure, we have cyclones, gospel trains, the medicine man and the manhunt…but why paint freakish subjects and call them the spirit of Kansas?”

His dealer, Maynard Walker, encouraged him to keep his midwestern connections.  In 1933, one year after his first wife’s death, he traveled to Iowa to meet Grant Wood for the first time and to teach at Wood’s Stone City colony.

Grant Wood, a leader in the Public Works Art Project during the Depression, had a global, European theory for his regionalist vision.  He felt that artists from different areas of the country should compete with one another just as the Old World cities competed when building Gothic cathedrals. Each area would build its own type of art.  Wood’s “American Gothic” exemplifies his theory.  His sister, Nan, and his dentist posed as farmer and wife in this Flemish inspired painting, showing the solid, hardworking and honest life of rural Iowa farmers.

All three artists actively reported the American scene.  Benton’s dignified images of the rural south are icons of a past life in the 30s and 40s.  Curry’s art actively engaged the social and economic problems of the Great Depression, whether it is the devastating floods of the Midwest or his brave and public stand on lynching in “The Fugitive.”  He did not shrink from his convictions in his mural proposal for the Department of Justice.  Although it was ultimately rejected, “Freeing of the Slaves” was hailed by Thomas Hart Benton as “the greatest single picture of modern times.  It is a simple and plain representation of people realizing a dream of freedom.”

Curry’s wife, Kathleen, whom he married in 1934, told me, for all his fame, it was still the depression…and it took a total of 6 years to sell “The Tornado.”  The offer of a four thousand dollar a year position at the University of Wisconsin was quickly accepted.  As part of the faculty of the Department of Agriculture, Curry had no formal teaching obligations.  The progressive philosophy of the school suited his purpose.  He became America’s first “Artist in Residence” with a mission to bring art to the non-urban workers and farmers, as well as the student body.

Curry supporters in Kansas were chagrined—Kansas had lost a great opportunity. Iowa had its native son, Grant Wood; Benton had come home to Missouri…and Wisconsin had the Kansan, John Steuart Curry! Newspaper editor William Allen White wrote, “It takes something more than factories, something more than crowded towns and cities, something more than per capita wealth to make a civilization, and Kansas would be able to hold her head a little higher if she could have taken John Curry under her wing.”

In 1937, however, Curry was offered the opportunity to paint the murals for the Kansas State Capital.  Never one to compromise his principles, he had made it clear from the beginning that he would not “paint a soft, soppy presentation of Kansas history.” Curry knew his audience and deftly played on Kansas’s sentiments to achieve his goal. It was not lofty moralizing but a regionalist’s keen grounded sense for knowing his people, their popular culture, their pride… and add to that, a hefty measure of down home commercialism.

He was going to give Kansas on their state house walls a history that was 235 years older than the Declaration of Independence.  For a territory that had achieved statehood in 1861, it was a great feat!  The key was the 400th anniversary of the Coronado’s visit to Kansas.  Legend has it that Francisco Vasquez de Coronado had visited Kansas in search of the land of gold or “Quivera” in 1541.  The governor’s wife, a member of the DAR, was thrilled!  Her Kansas ancestors predated the pilgrims by 79 years!

Curry knew what appealed to the American psyche and relished incorporating Hollywood references on the revered statehouse walls.  He placed the Spanish commander on a palomino horse similar to the one of the new Hollywood hero, Roy Rogers.  He borrowed props from movie studios. 

While Coronado and The Plainsman were easily approved, John Brown was problematic.  Curry relied on myth and Hollywood fantasy for the Coronado part of the statehouse, but he felt that he needed to see Michelangelo’s work of Moses to complete his vision of John Brown. This meant a trip to Europe in 1938.  In Rome, he saw Mussolini’s facisicm; in Munich he saw Hitler’s fury. Those parallels with the abolitionist were unsettling.  Curry wrote: “If John Brown were alive today, he would be considered direct from Moscow or Germany.”

Brown, an American abolitionist who was instrumental in heightening animosity before the Civil War, traveled to the Kansas Territory in 1855 with five of his sons to assist antislavery forces.  After a sack on Lawrence, Kansas by a proslavery mob in 1856, Brown felt he had a divine mission to take vengeance.  He then led a raid on a pro-slavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek.  Five men were dragged out of their cabins and hacked to death.   His 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, a federal arsenal, and his eventual hanging made him a martyr to the anti-slavery cause.  Seeing the signs of another European conflict, Curry feared this sort of wild-eyed, war-mongering fanaticism.  Just a year earlier, Topeka had hosted one of the largest Klu Klux Klan meetings in history.  Curry made sure that John Brown was placed right outside the governor’s office door—a warning to fanatics of all persuasions.

For all the fury and drama in the east wing, the west wing represented Kansans’ hope for the future in “Unmortgaged Farm.”  Curry was experiencing his own parents losing the family farm.  Not being able to help was hurtful after all the years of family support he had received.  As his brother, Eugene, had written, “The only bad result I foresee is a psychological one in the feeling the folks will have that they will be homeless.” 

Curry knew what was troubling the Kansas farmer.  He intended to paint what he called his “propaganda by art” on the Rotunda panels. Inspired by his Wisconsin trips to the country with Dean Christensen of the University’s Agricultural Department, he became convinced that soil conservation was the key.  He planned to show the abandoned farm, wind erosion, shoestring gullies and grasshoppers. Others did not see his point of view.  Curry was about to insult and humiliate the farmers of Kansas by painting his conservationist propaganda in their Statehouse Rotunda. The sodbuster, long our nation’s hero, was accused of creating the dustbowl.  It is no small wonder that he met with resistance.  The rotunda panels were never realized.  As Kathleen Curry remarked to me, “It ripped his heart out.”  He died prematurely in 1946 at the age of 49.

Curry dedicated his art to his convictions.  As a true regionalist, he never lost sight of the problems of his day and the needs of the people.  In the words of Thomas Hart Benton: “It is not for me, yet standing, to judge our success as a whole.  But I will risk this—whatever may be said of Grant Wood and me, it will surely be said of John Curry that he was the most simply human artist of his day.  Maybe in the end that will make him the greatest.”