ESSAYS

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.”

The Regionalist Vision of John Steuart Curry
Written by Wendy Katz PhD, Guest Curator, “Curry’s America: The Regionalist Vision of John Steuart Curry,” Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, Lincoln, Nebraska. Summer, 1999.

Summarizing his hopes for American art, John Steuart Curry told the Art Association of Wisconsin in 1937, “The social, political, and economic disturbances of the times have brought forth those artists who, taking their themes from these issues, have produced telling and effective works for the cause of social and political justice…Just give us time.” Curry certainly counted himself among those artists who chose what he called “alive and vital” subjects with clear social relevance, but a survey of his work reveals no lines of unemployed or crowded sweat shops, no political demagogues or bank failures, few eroded and dusty landscapes or machine-made products. Instead, his primary subjects were cows and bulls, hogs and horses, farmers and preachers, circus performers and rural families, tornadoes and floods. As he said, such subjects suggested that if he used “propaganda” in art, it was only to “make cows eat more grass and produce more milk.” Given that rather than painting the class struggle he painted the struggle of man against nature, why then would Curry and his contemporaries in the 1930s call him a leader of the “new movement” of modern American social art?1

The answer lies in the profoundly Regionalist nature of Curry’s vision of the U.S. and in particular, the Regionalist aim of creating a distinctive – but pluralist – American culture, which would spring naturally from the traditions and values of past and present communities. For Regionalists, any truly national style was impossible as long as American culture remained split between twin evils: the lofty ideals of high art and the low economic goals of ordinary experience. Writer Van Wyck Brooks, the subject of a Curry portrait and popularizer of the polarities “Highbrow” and “Lowbrow,” observed that the problem with American art was that it had “an integrity as distinct from the multifarious chaotic life of the American people as the crust of a pie has from the less decorative contents it serves to conceal.”2 Until the makers of culture found a connection between crust and filling, the elite and the masses, they would continue to produce art only for art’s sake, and worse, attempt to graft such art onto the European modernist tradition rather than an American base.

To Brooks and his fellow critics, the only possibility for creating a whole and wholly American pie lay not in acknowledging that such cultural divisions were in fact typical, but in literally rooting artists in the soil; finding artists who were an organic part of a community and represented their own experience in it. The artist who was an integrated part of a particular place and time, responsive to and shaped by its customs and traditions, would naturally produce an American art that was inseparable from ordinary people’s experience within the same community. This emphasis on place – and the artist’s connectedness to it – was the key to supplying the missing middle ground between art and making a living and thereby the key to creating an authentic (undivided) but unmistakably American culture. When the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agriculture – not the Art Department – offered Curry a job as artist-in-residence, the Western Union telegram stressed that the position was intended “for the development of regional art as a force for rural culture.” While Curry would be free to paint as he pleased, the premise that “Mr. Curry’s own life and work is rooted in the soil and expresses in itself a profound understanding of the lives of the people” promised that he would fulfill the regionalist demand of creating a high art that was also an expression of all the members of a community.3 Curry’s Monarch of the Glen, showing a monumental Hereford bull rising in massive, thick proportions above a flat landscape, in many ways fulfills the goal of regional art: communities that raised a well-bred and excellent herd of cattle would have them celebrated on their walls. The long straight line of neck and back, the deep chest, and full hindquarters, all the qualities of prize stock produced by scientific breeding and pasturage, are Curry’s ideal of beauty, and replace the graceful air of Victorian painter Edward Landseer’s aristocratic stag in the 1851 painting of the same name.

However, as most Regionalists acknowledged despairingly, most Americans were urban, highly mobile, bought mass-produced or standardized goods, and based political or economic decisions on individual or family interests; in other words, Americans in general lacked a more than superficial vision of their relationship to a local community. Since everything was up to date in Kansas City, a Missouri or Kansas artist lived and painted little differently than a New York one. Accordingly, regionalist artists and writers went to considerable effort to seek economic backwaters in the U.S., where older community traditions, myths and customs either co-existed with modernization or could be convincingly recreated. If they didn’t exist, regionalists invented them, because their vision of society was prescriptive as much as realist: art should offer resistance to the uniformity and commercial qualities of modern mass culture by upholding alternative symbols and images, which would derive their force and attractiveness from their source in local customs or beliefs.4

Curry did indeed stress his connections with a particular local place, as did his admirers. The first sentence of his “Life and Letters” emulates the text of a dozen exhibition catalogs in emphasizing his authenticity as a man of the soil: “I was born on a farm near Dunavant, Jefferson County, Kansas, in 1897 and my parents still live on the land.” However, in a typical pattern, his career as a regionalist began only when he left Kansas for New York and Paris, and his most famous paintings of Kansas were done in Connecticut. After leaving home for two years of classes at the Chicago Art Institute, he moved to New York and studied with magazine illustrator Harvey Dunn. His apprenticeship paid off in a successful career as an illustrator of short stories for periodicals like The Country Gentleman and the Saturday Evening Post, during which time he moved to Westport, Connecticut, the home of Brooks and a bohemian colony of fashion designers, socialists, and artists.

His Interior of a Studio (ca. 1925), painted during this early period, suggests not so much the rustic Kansan as the aspirant to the ideal of art for art’s sake. It depicts a studio closed off from the outside world, and filled with objets d’art selected on the basis of their formal qualities rather than any organic or natural connection: a fishing net, a Japanese lantern, a straight-backed chair and apron, and a portrait of a woman in Victorian white. The artist’s refined sensibility, capable of perceiving the beauty of design in apparently unrelated objects, arranges them within the coherent geometry of a shallow space composed of crisp squares and rectangles: the door frame, the picture frames, the floorboards. Curry’s other paintings from this period, such as the series done of Lake Otsego, near Cooperstown, New York, or of his house and cat, demonstrate his acquaintance with and skill at converting a landscape into an abstract design: in Cat on Fence (1924), fence, feline and foliage become elements in an elegant, slightly stylized two-dimensional pattern.

For the cultural nationalists, such painting was condemned as effete and “precious;” like Whistler’s monogram of the butterfly, it suggested an image of the artist as floating above reality or roots (though at the same time curiously typically American in being rootless); a form of perception that was pure surface in its concern for representing the superficial formal attributes of things, and so divorcing them from living culture and social realities. Such an artist could never then achieve the aim of a distinctive American culture that unified art and life. Curry very deliberately went to Paris to remedy just this literal and metaphoric lack of depth. He studied at Boris Schoukhaieff’s Academy, and he principally studied the figure. In the academic tradition, his sketchbooks are filled not just with anatomical studies, but with how to convincingly represent the body in space, fully and clearly modelled in all its solidity and mass.

His paintings on his return from Paris show a dramatic departure from his earlier work, both in subject and style. Spring, Barber City, done during a visit home in 1929, depicts what would become his typical Kansas landscape. A raised foreground, with a road or fence line leading diagonally into the lower middle ground, where stocky buildings, trees or cattle create a focal point and unit of measurement, while hills, creeks, or lines of trees form looser swirling lines to the horizon’s strong buttes and rises. Unlike Cat on Fence, it is a landscape with depth, as well as a depiction of a recognizable specific place – his home. His sketch for a Farmer’s Wife (1940) shows his continuing application of his knowledge of form: done in crayon, the woman’s face emerges sharply and distinctly from the background.

In later years, a student asked Curry what he meant “by the word “solidity” in an “arty” way” and whether this effect was achieved through color, shading, brushstroke or layers of paint. Curry answered that solidity is sculpture-like solid form, achieved with light and shadow.5 Color came later, especially for Curry, usually in the layers of oil and varnish put atop forms already modelled in monochrome tempera. The result is a curious separation between solid structure of forms, based on knowledge rather than the eye, and the creative exaggeration allowed in the layers of color, the location for personal reaction or originality of feeling, perhaps just because it is freed from the necessity of modelling masses. His work over the next 15 years testifies that the solid was essential to him in a painting, because it was key to giving figures the symbolic monumentality dear to the regionalists’ program for cultural formation.

Like other modernists, regionalists believed that art’s integrative power could bring about social change, inspiring and unifying Americans with shared ideals, but they searched for collective symbols capable of doing so in the local and provincial rather than the subjective or universal realm. In the words of Maynard Walker, Curry’s New York dealer and fellow Kansan, Curry’s paintings accurately depict but at the same time go beyond the “immediate, factual circumstances of humble life in the Middle West” to the “imponderable, elemental forces that, far beneath the surface, unite us all.”6 He might depict the MidWest, but his style gave these images the depth that connected the tangible with the mythic, the aesthetic realm of feeling with ordinary experience. In a lecture Curry gave several times, he lambasted 19th-century murals with their classicized allegorical goddesses as static, unchanging, and absent of real ideas, suited for museums rather than public buildings. Modern civic symbols, to have the dramatic and emotional force required to unite people, needed to be found in the changing realities of the day. Such modern art “lacks their refined elegance, our line is cruder, the mass more insistent,” in accord with “that great part of America which has surged good-naturedly around and past the ballyhooers of the status quo and to the attractions at the other end of the fair ground.”7 What is important in Curry’s manifesto, is not that he truly discards the aim of 19th-century muralists to create public symbols, but that he argues they went about it the wrong way. Rather than elevating the masses to an abstract ideal or virtue, he encourages the abstract ideal to find its embodiment in the mass.

Most of the images in this exhibiton take up precisely that subject: Curry’s effort to find and depict the regionalist civic ideal of the democratic, cooperative community with shared traditions, surviving in an age beset by standardization, rootlessness, and centralization. To this end, he emphasized the persistence and survival of the past and its traditions, as a reminder that it had not been erased by modern technology. He does this by using history to construct an ideal of the present, as when an illustration like Democratic Politicians in Kansas, showing a trio of 19th-century men talking, reappears in modern dress as Curry’s Three Men Near Street (1941). The anecdotal quality vanishes in the latter, but the theme remains the same: that the 19th-century tradition of small-town democracy, conducted by informal gatherings of ordinary men in the street, persists in present-day customs, regardless of Good Government or machine politics. He does this more literally, in Commerce, (1932), where Curry stands overall-clad men on the (sweep? cow catcher?) of an oncoming train. Despite the nude figures in the upper corners, appropriate for an abstract subject, the train and its workers are set in a modern railyard, and the contrast of human and machine dramatizes not so much the inevitable triumph of modern progress over the regional as it suggests the adaptation of rural figures to it. Later Curry would prominently use a similar vignette for his Washington DC mural of the Oklahoma Land Rush; after all, commercial-minded men and women, bearers of technology as well as tradition, had created much of the Midwest’s distinctive character. That this was indeed a regionalist point of view is clarified by the fact that the government mural commissioners forced him to remove that particular scene to the far background.

If Commerce reassured that the rural had always survived in tandem with the modern, Curry also showed new forms of community developing within that modern world. His Cattle Fair (1933), with its group of men gathered to gossip and conduct business in near timeless fashion, coexists with Diner Scene (1934), where a cafe becomes a new small-town hub for men and women, dressed for business or shopping, to work and socialize. The circus itself was a particularly inclusive community, as Beauty and Clowns (1932) suggests, one that in its variety and extremes was and is pluralist, housing its diversity under one big tent, in the still popular political metaphor. In 1932, Curry travelled with the Ringling Brothers circus for six months and began a series of paintings and sketches of its star performers. But the circus’s general mode of production and distribution were also appealing to a regionalist, since the skills of aerialists like the Cadonas in Passing Leap (1932), as well as jugglers and animal trainers, are handed down through families, apprenticeships and an oral tradition, while the circus itself was an entertainment that found a popular audience without being a standardized or centralized production, as it travelled through the country. In Touchdown, done while artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin, the emphasis is more on the audience and the idea of the game as an autumn community ritual and tradition, marked with music, pennants, and cheering crowds – not unlike the audience and spectacle of the visiting circus.

Curry was not purely celebratory. He painted negative examples of communities formed by destructive forces, such as the men huddled together in Hobos (1930), or more frighteningly, the lawlessness behind Man Hunt (1931), which he developed into the anti-lynching theme of paintings like The Fugitive, Lawless of the Country, and Justice Defeating Mob Violence. Curry felt ardently about this issue; he had memories of hearing man hunts pass by as a boy, and when he did this sketch for Man Hunt in 1931, a hastily convened all-white jury had just convicted nine black youths of rape and sentenced 8 of them to death in the infamous Scottsboro affair. He later contributed work to the controversial exhibition An Art Commentary on Lynching, sponsored by the NAACP in 1935. But when he came to design the mural of Justice Defeating Mob Violence for the Federal Justice Department, he had trouble painting in the face of the leader of the mob. He tried a skull or death’s head, but ended up with a masked face; putting an American ‘type’ to the image of lawlessness and by implication, racism, was not possible for him. Curry’s series of sketches of the path and wake of tornadoes seem to speak to the negative theme of a community threatened or destroyed by overpowering natural forces. In one sense, the drawings are simply preparatory sketches for oil paintings like The Tornado, but in this early form, done immediately after a tornado hit near his family home, Curry depicts a devastated landscape with all human effort laid waste and dispersed into chaos. Yet the knowledge is there too for viewers that this scene is not permanent, that Midwesterners survive natural disasters – Curry also painted floods and storms – and persist in the landscape because neighbors, with government assistance, come together to help each other rebuild. Some ten years later, Curry would paint America Facing the Storm (1941), showing the threat of natural disaster pulling the townspeople into a common feeling and action; the grand scale of the picture – despite or because of its destination as a layout in Esquire magazine – indicate clearly enough that the storm is a symbolic one: the “mortal storm” of war.

The grander scale and sweep of America Facing the Storm is typical of much of his work after 1937, due not just to the propaganda requirements of World War II, but also to his numerous mural commissions for schools and government buildings. Murals were extremely popular with regionalists because they offered the chance to invent a “usable past” and have it brought to a large public audience. This concept of a usable past was an extremely pragmatic approach to history in stressing that the meaning of the past had no objective reality, but rather is “an inexhaustible storehouse of apt attitudes and adaptable ideals,” from which artists could select those experiences with value for themselves – and for the present and the future. There was no canon of what ought to be remembered for regionalists, though they tended to stress the cooperative motif of pioneer families, for simply showing that people in the past had also struggled against appalling obstacles would help bring about “that sense of brotherhood in effort and in aspiration which is the best promise of a national culture.”8 In his mural commissions, Curry was usually assigned a general historical subject – the Emigration Westward, the History of Kansas, the Emancipation Proclamation, etc. – and had the freedom to create a design that would convey the most usable (to the present) meaning of that history.

John Brown (1939), a lithograph taken from a study for the central figure of “The Tragic Prelude,” the murals for the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka, shows how Curry assigned meaning to the past. Rather than a cheery incident or realist attention to historical costume and setting, Curry chose to feature a figure whose career exemplified – to Curry – both the past and present dangers of religious fanaticism and the heroism of the fight for civil rights. Brown’s figure, in the pose of a crucifixion, is enlarged to gigantic proportions, double that of those around him, to express his importance as a Civil War martyr, with his wind-blown head silhouetted against a tornado, a symbol of the War’s destruction and of Brown himself, the “Cyclone of Kansas.” In the shadows at either side of Brown are slaves and soldiers from the North and South, and behind them, pioneers trekking west. Curry’s design monumentalizes Brown to create a dramatic icon, who, if not worthy of direct emulation in the present, was still a symbol of human willingness to battle insuperable obstacles. Not everyone, however, agreed with Curry’s selection of what was usable in Kansas’s past; admirers of Brown disliked the open-mouthed fanaticism of the portrayal, while boosters disliked having tornadoes and violence identified as the spirit of the state. The criticism helped derail the Topeka mural program, which was never completed.

In January of 1941, Curry left Maynard Walker’s Gallery for the Associated American Artists (AAA) Gallery. He was happy with the decision; during that year he received some $4000 in commissions. Certainly, the mission statement of AAA, to give contemporary artists a place and stature in society by giving them a social function, suited Curry’s ideals: “Art is of value to society, and that society will see its value if it is exposed under conditions corresponding to those accepted sales practices by which values are established in ordinary commerce…without public interest and insight the life of the artist is likely to be crowded into narrow corners, and that his art will be narrow correspondingly.”9 To dealers like Walker, such an approach to art smacked of Bloomingdale’s. Indeed, AAA found Curry commissions from a number of more popular outlets for art, in particular original works done for reproduction in magazines like Life, McCall’s, and Esquire; but they and Curry also eagerly sought corporate sponsorship, whether “notable paintings of the tobacco country by America’s foremost artists” for Lucky Strike, or Hershey’s payment for paintings of Cuban sugar fields, or “oil interests'” backing for Curry’s trip to Panama. Curry’s official biographer notes that this turn toward the commercial was part of Curry’s sense of social responsibility and his vision of the artist as a useful part of society.10 This is certainly true and testifies to the success of the regionalist program of making art and culture a part of ordinary life, rather than occupying a sphere reserved for the elite – though credit for this should go more to the other of Curry’s achievements, public education’s inclusion of the arts in the curriculum. But the collapse of local art into national corporate advertising was a long way from the regionalists’ dream of a unified American culture that could resist commercial standardization.

1. Curry is quoted in Morris Rubin, “The Spark for the Cultural Enrichment of Rural Life,” Wisconsin State Journal, December 4, 1936. Curry Papers, Roll 165 of the Archives of American Art. Thomas Craven, Modern Art (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1934) p. 370.
2. Brooks, “America’s Coming of Age,” 1915
3. Telegram from the University of Wisconsin to Curry, 1936. Dean Chris Christensen, foreword, Exhibition of Work by John Steuart Curry, Wisconsin Union, 1937. Curry Papers, Roll 168 of the Archives of American Art.
4. On the Regionalist cultural and political program, see Richard Dorman, Revolt of the Provinces
5. Letter from Mrs. Millard Smith, Lancaster, WI, to Curry, January 26, 1944. His reply is dated Feb. 21, 1944. Curry Papers, Roll 167 of Archives of American Art.
6. Walker, ibid, p.2.
7. “Address before the Art Association of Madison: American Painting,” January 19, 1937. Typescript. p. 5. Curry Papers, Roll 164, Archives of American Art.
8. Brooks, “On Creating a Usable Past,” The Dial, 1917-1918. Sue Kendall analyzes the usable past as it appears in Curry’s murals in >>>
9. “What the Associated American Artists Stand For,” August 31, 1944, typescript.
10. Laurence Schmeckebier, John Steuart Curry’s Pageant of America, (New York: American Artists Group, 1943) pp. 261-266.

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.

NOTES

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, http://www.territorialkansasonline.org; Samuel Reader, Diary, May 23, 1855 through December 31, 1857, Kansas State Historical Society, Territorial Kansas Online, http://www.territorialkansasonline.org; Samuel Reader, Painting, Battle of Hickory Point, Kansas State Historical Society, Territorial Kansas Online, http://www.territorialkansasonline.org.
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, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/Description-of-Murals-for-Kansas-State-House–192987.
21 Ibid.

Curry and Wisconsin Progressivism

Curry was the Artist-in-Residence from 1936-1946. Curry came during the age of the “Wisconsin Idea”; a broad initiative to foster the economic, social, intellectual, and moral development of the people of the state. The Progressive notion was: “the boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state.” (Junker 184)

The university’s rural art program, by the mid-1950s, had grown from an idea into a statewide organization drawn from regional and local associations and related regional exhibitions, classes, and workshops. The university was also a complex world of groundbreaking discovery. College of Agriculture scientists were engaged in some of the major vitamin discoveries of the early 20th Century. (Junker 184)

The Wisconsin Progressive Party began in 1934, when it separated from the Republican Party. However, Progressive ideas culminated around 1900, by reformer Robert M. La Follette, Senior. La Follette was the governor of Wisconsin (1855-1925) and made Wisconsin the model state for progressive ideas. This resulted in the passage of bills such as a corrupt practices act, a worker’s compensation act, and the first state income tax. Another success of the movement was the Secret Ballot, which was adopted in Wisconsin and the direct primary elections in 1903. The state became a leader in social legislation. (Britannica)

Wisconsinites responded to the rapid changes in population, technology, work, and society with action: they advocated women’s suffrage, labor rights and protections, educational reform, increased social services, and an overall more responsive government. (www.wisc.edu/wisconsinpress/books/0215.htm)

The formal definition of Progressivism is as follows: “implies a philosophy which welcomes innovations and reforms in the political, economic and social order, usually to alleviate the ills of society, to assure people a broader control of their governments and to afford greater economic, political, and social justice to the people.” (www.libarts.sfasu.edu/history/134_Unit6A.html)

Progressivism may very well have been the response of various groups to problems raised by the rapid industrialization and urbanization that followed the Civil War. Many Americans feared that their historic traditions of responsible democratic government and free economic opportunity for all were being destroyed by gigantic combinations of economic and political power. (Britannica)

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