Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


John Steuart Curry and his admirers stressed his connections with his birthplace, a farm near Dunavant, Jefferson County, Kansas, where he was born on November 14, 1847, just as it was his paintings of rural Kansas that brought him national fame. However, in a typical pattern, his career as a regionalist painter began only when he left Kansas.

After classes from 1916 to 1918 at the Chicago Art Institute, Curry moved to New York in 1919 and studied with magazine illustrator Harvey Dunn. His apprenticeship led to a successful seven-year career illustrating short stories for periodicals like the Saturday Evening Post, during which time he moved to Westport, Connecticut, home to a bohemian artists colony. There writers like Van Wyck Brooks introduced him to the regionalist aim of creating a distinctive and authentic American culture based on artists who were an organic part of a community and who represented their own experience in it. The artist who was responsive to and shaped by the customs and traditions of a particular place would naturally produce an American art that was inseparable from ordinary people's experience within the same community.

After a stint in 1926.27 studying the figure in Vasily Shukayev's studio in Paris, Curry returned and painted his first regionalist subject, Baptism in Kansas (1928). It and pictures like Tornado over Kansas (1929) instantly succeeded with influential eastern critics and patrons who admired Kansan traditions and communities for their differences from the uniformity and commercialism of modern mass culture. Gertrude Whitney posed with Baptism at the opening of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931; by 1934 Curry was on the cover of Time, anointed with Grant Wood of Iowa and Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri as the midwestern leaders of a new American art movement, distinct from French modernism and abstraction.

Under the New Deal, the Departments of Justice and the Interior in Washington DC hired Curry from 1936 to 1938 to paint mural cycles on themes like the Oklahoma land rush and the freeing of the slaves. But Curry's dealers and friends sought to bolster his regionalist credentials by bringing him back to the Midwest, and in 1936 Curry accepted the position of artist in residence at the University of Wisconsin's College of Agriculture, where he fulfilled the requirement to develop regional art as a force for improving rural culture. Curry's Ajax (1936–37), which shows a monumental Hereford bull rising in massive proportions above a flat landscape, in many ways fulfilled the goal of regional art: communities that raised scientifically bred herds of cattle would have their ideal of beauty celebrated on their walls.

Curry also sought validation from his home state of Kansas but with less success, as his choice of subjects was seen there as closer to negative provincial stereotyping. In 1937 he was commissioned to paint murals for the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka, but his depiction of Kansas history–including abolitionist John Brown and soil erosion–met with such hostility that the murals were never completed. Curry stayed at the University of Wisconsin until his death on August 29, 1946, and his success encouraged the incorporation of an arts curriculum at other land-grant universities.

Wendy J. Katz University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Junker, Patricia, ed. John Steuart Curry. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1998.

Kendall, M. Sue. Rethinking Regionalism: John Steuart Curry and the Kansas Mural Controversy. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986.

Schmeckebier, Laurence. John Steuart Curry's Pageant of America. New York: American Artists Group, 1943.

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