John Steuart Curry
Dunavant, Kansas, USA
Madison, Wisconsin, USA
Summary of John Steuart Curry
During the Great Depression, John Steuart Curry devoted himself to painting sincere portrayals of the American heartland. At a time when critics were calling for an American vernacular art and the discovery of a usable past, Curry and other Regionalist artists headed the call to paint rural and small town America. These often idealized, even nostalgic, depictions of community, religious life, and indomitable work ethic aimed to provide solace to a populace suffering the effects of a financial disaster and widespread drought.
Recognized during his own time, along with Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, Curry painted easel paintings as well as murals that decorated various government buildings. Unfortunately his more traditional style of painting did not sustain his reputation after his death, and Curry remains an often overlooked American painter.
- In using allusions to Classical and Renaissance art, Curry imbued his subjects with a gravitas and importance that other depictions of rural life often lacked. He aimed to create timeless narratives that evoked moral authority and would inspire the people.
- While Curry typically depicted bucolic scenes, many of them have a questioning, even sinister, quality about them that adds a complexity to otherwise straightforward depictions, but which led some to criticize him for misrepresenting folks in small Midwestern towns. This disquieting aspect of his work, though, might be seen as a commentary on rural American life and as a more multidimensional take on Regionalism's preferred subjects.
- Criticized for his technical awkwardness and not producing a stronger, identifiable style, Curry nevertheless gave vision to an expressive regionalism that often embodied the dynamism and spirit of rural communities.
Biography of John Steuart Curry
In 1897, John Steuart Curry was born on a farm in the unincorporated community of Dunavant, Jefferson County, Kansas. According to a 1910 census, the town had a population of 85. He was the eldest child of Thomas Smith Curry and Margaret Stueart, both of whom were raised on mid-western farms but had been college educated. While the young painter would often do farm-work for several hours before heading into town for school, he could just as often be found in the fields sketching horses and buildings instead of shovelling manure.
Important Art by John Steuart Curry
Baptism in Kansas was Curry's first major success, produced soon after his return from Paris and depicting a scene recalled from his childhood. During one of the region's many droughts, Kansas communities in 1915 found themselves having to use farmyard water-tanks for baptisms. In the center of the painting, the local pastor baptizes a blonde, white-robed woman. The service is watched by the entire community - families, farmers, policemen, and animals alike. The concentric, spiral-like composition of the scene leads the eye from a partially depicted automobile in the bottom left to the spectators with their backs to the viewer in the foreground, over to a group of soon-to-baptized dressed in white, circling around the tank to a gentleman holding a hymnal, and finally ends with the pastor and young woman in the center. Beyond the spiral of people one sees the buildings of the farmstead and the vast landscape beyond. The sky beams with sunlight, and the fields and roads stretch into the distance, while Noah's dove and raven fly over the scene. The painting is epic and intimate at once.
The subject of the painting - religion, rebirth, and community ethics - was common to Regionalism, as it rejected urban cosmopolitanism in favor of heartland realism. The triangular composition of the priest propping up the woman's body mirrors the timber structures of the sturdy farm-buildings, celebrating the strength of core American values and institutions. The motor-cars, a symbol of 1920s capitalism and urban youth, are relegated to the outer fringes of the frame in favor of a vocal community chorus.
Present also are the beginnings of Curry's unique compositional style and his feel for expressive potential. The combination of the dominant spiral formation and multiple triangular shapes - the priest's legs, the perspective lines of the road and fields, the roofs, the sunbeams - create a tension between a sense of activity and motion and stability. As art historian Henry Adams explained, Curry's composition "simultaneously expresses claustrophobia and agoraphobia."
"It was action he loved most to interpret: the lunge through space, the split second before the kill, the suspended moment before the storm strikes," said Grant Wood of his fellow Regionalist painter, Curry. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this gripping, muscular scene, where a tornado screams towards a Kansas farm. The family hurries for shelter across the foreground. The buildings and the people seem to tilt and lunge in tense, expressive motion within the frame, reminiscent of the falling figures of a Paolo Veronese painting. Careful, emotionally charged details like the basin for catching rainwater, the expression on the eldest son's face as he carries the piglets, and the patchwork textures of the infant's quilt are offset by the biblical power of the tornado's swirling arm, driven hard into the Kansas earth from a dark sky. The family moves to the left of the frame, towards the light-source and away from the gathering shadow.
This work earned Curry second-prize in the Carnegie Institute's Thirty-first Annual International Exhibition of Paintings, confirming his position as the foremost emerging painter of his day. It's a canvas of extraordinary power, both for its narrative thrust and its emotionally rich composition. Its turmoil and turbulence could also have a biographical reference, as Curry's own marriage at the time was uneasy. Curry's style here, too, is wrought from instability. Though it's figurative and peopled, art historian Henry Adams sees this painting as being right on the edge of abstraction, writing "With its distended figures and exploding buildings, the work appears to threaten to transform itself into a synthetic cubist composition. Traditional composition has here been pushed to an expressive limit, has come to the verge of becoming something completely different."
Curry is best known for his powerful, socially and historically located canvases and murals - paintings of actual people, real communities, and tangible geographies. Often there is a phantasmagorical feel, an electricity in the air, a pseudo-Biblical power. But we're usually aware of who, when, and where we are. Sometimes, however, as in Hogs Killing a Rattlesnake and the later painting, Ajax, Curry moves into a rarefied space of ambiguous, allegorical expressiveness. Here, seven furious hogs converge from all sides of a woodland glade upon a doomed rattlesnake. The power of the hogs is noisy and total. One pig looms into the frame from the foreground, making a viewer feel compelled forwards with bestial energy, even complicit in the hunt. The snake rears and bares its fangs bravely, its twining musculature seeming unreal, unlike anything else in the forest scene. Curry dashed and stroked his paint with more blur and vigour than usual, even scratching the canvas with his fingernails to give the coarse and hairy effect on the boars' hides.
The tree's canopy bears ripe, red fruit, one of which has fallen plump to the ground, suggesting fertility and life even amongst the throes of death. Curry's flair for capturing facial expressions is here transferred from people to hogs. Their snarls and focussed eyes exude personality and power, and the snake, too, has a voice. Violent and verdant, composed around the dark hole in the tree's trunk at the painting's center, the painting communicates a vital sense of the world's natural forces, its pounding rhythm and thrilling energy celebrates the pulse and cycle of life and death.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on John Steuart Curry
- John Steuart Curry : inventing the Middle WestOur PickBy Patricia A. Junker (1998)
- Rethinking Regionalism: John Steuart Curry and the Kansas Mural ControversyBy Sue M. Kendall (1986)
- John Steuart Curry's Pageant of AmericaOur PickBy Laurence E. Schmeckebier (1943)
- Renegade Regionalists: Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart CurryBy James M. Dennis (1997)