John Steuart Curry - Biography and Legacy
Dunavant, Kansas, USA
Madison, Wisconsin, USA
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.
His mother and father were also distinguished in their community by the fact of their having honeymooned in Europe, visiting Paris. Significantly, Margaret brought back souvenir reproductions of famous paintings. Curry later remembered, "Instead of grain and feed calendars in our house...we had Rubens, Bellini and Millet. That was unusual and had a great deal to do with forming my future."
Curry attended Winchester High School in Kansas, excelling in football and athletics, but dropped out before graduation in 1916 to attend art school. From 1916, Curry studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and from 1918 to 1919 at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. In 1920 he introduced himself to the illustrator Harvey Dunn after eagerly pursuing him to New Jersey. Curry settled in New York in 1921 and worked for four years as an illustrator for magazines such as Boy's Life. His experience as an illustrator heavily informed his later painterly style, particularly his sense of narrative and his bold, centrally-foregrounded figural composition.
In 1923, Curry married Clara Derrick. They met through Curry's brother, Eugene, who worked for Clara's father at the New Jersey State Home for Boys. "Well I am married, happy and glad of it," Curry wrote to his mother. "We had a dandy little wedding." The couple settled in Westport, Connecticut, the next year, and Curry began painting oils and watercolors in his studio. A family of skunks took up residence below the floor of his studio. Curry was very fond of them, and included skunks in his paintings many times in his career.
In 1925 Curry assisted artist James Daugherty on a mural for the Cook Travel Agency. Daugherty was frustrated with Curry's lack of basic technical skills, his inability to complete simple pictorial tasks like painting a flag - but was also struck by the young painter's powerfully unconventional sense of form. He advised Curry to study further at Basil Schoukhaieff's drawing academy in Paris. In 1926 Curry and Clara Derrick left together for France.
During his time in Paris, Curry developed his sketching and his painting. While in Paris, the grains of traditionalist thought that would engender his Regionalist style were planted. He rejected the avant-garde trend towards abstraction represented by Matisse and Picasso, preferring the Old Masters, and he became devoted to Rubens and Titian. Of the modernist artists he said, "They were good but not good for me. Now, at the age of twenty-nine years, I grew up. I discovered my tradition. I discovered Rubens."
Not long after returning from Paris, Curry became an almost-overnight sensation on the East Coast when his painting Baptism in Kansas (1928) was exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Fine Arts, Washington D.C., as part of the Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings. His unfamiliar rural subject matter, his unconventional spatial perspectives, and his biblically potent narratives captured the minds of contemporary viewers in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington D.C. Another canvas produced around this time, depicting a Kansas family rushing for cover as a twister tears up the horizon (Tornado Over Kansas, 1929), cemented Curry's celebrity. He began to be exhibited regularly in the North East, and in January of 1930 his first solo exhibition opened at the new Whitney Studios Gallery in New York.
His whirlwind success was coupled with turbulence, however. Curry labored with intense emotional and mental strain, and in 1932, he literally ran away with the circus. Leaving his wife, Clara, at home, Curry travelled with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus for much of the year. In July, Clara died. "I was twenty minutes too late to see her alive," Curry wrote to a friend.
In June 1934, Curry married his second wife, Kathleen Gould Shepherd, a friend from Westport, and travelled the Midwest making sketches. Also in the early 1930s, thanks to the efforts of William Allen White, a newspaper publisher from Topeka, Curry's paintings began to be exhibited in Kansas and the Midwest. They were less well received here than they were on the East Coast, with White's own wife remarking, "Why paint outstanding freakish subjects and call them the 'spirit' of Kansas?"
Nevertheless, throughout the '30s Curry was considered alongside Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood as among the foremost painters in America. These three were featured in TIME magazine and recognized across the nation as ground-breaking artists of the emerging Regionalist movement. They were celebrated for speaking from America's heartland and creating an American painting that resisted European avant-gardism. During this period, Curry produced much of his most recognized work.
Late Period and Death
In 1936, Curry was announced as the Artist in Residence at The University of Wisconsin, a position he would hold for the rest of his career (and in fact, for the rest of his short life). Despite this security, and despite the production of successful and important mural works such as The Oklahoma Landrush (1937), the later stage of Curry's career was defined by the Kansas mural scandal.
In 1936, the Kansas Mural Commission accepted Curry's design proposal for the Statehouse in Topeka. Over the next four years, he produced panels including the famous Tragic Prelude (1937-40), which portrays the abolitionist John Brown as a modern-day Michelangelo's Moses.
By March 1941, State officials and other important figures had objected so much to Curry's murals that there was talk of their removal. The Mural Commission then refused to remove a marble slab from the Statehouse rotunda which was impeding Curry. This decision meant that Curry's original designs could not be completed. The painter abandoned the project in disgust and refused to add his signature to the panels which were already installed.
The controversy brought great strain to Curry's professional and personal life. In 1941 he abruptly severed ties with his friend and associate Maynard Walker of Walker Galleries, who had represented Curry for ten years. Curry wrote, "During the past two years I have become very unhappy and discouraged about the sale of my paintings. I have come to the conclusion that I have done about everything that I can for you, and that you have done about everything you can do for me." Curry signed instead with Associated American Artists. Walker was surprised and hurt, replying, "Maybe I am just plain dumb, but I am still at a complete loss to understand your action".
Despite these controversies, in 1942, Curry was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In October that same year, Grant Wood died. Curry delivered a tribute to his fellow Regionalist painter, saying "In the years ahead of us Grant Wood's paintings will stand like quiet monuments in their interpretation of that life. No other contemporary artist's work had the unique appeal that Grant's work had....The common man saw in these paintings something that he reacted to."
In November 1943, art historian and close friend of Curry's Laurence E. Schmeckebier published John Steuart Curry's Pageant of America, the first critical and biographical study of Curry's work and life.
On the 29th of August, 1946, John Steuart Curry died of a heart attack in Madison. He was buried in Winchester, Kansas three days later. The Topeka Star reported, "In the golden sunlight of a Sunday afternoon, one of Kansas' greatest artists, John Steuart Curry...came home to be buried in the churchyard of the Reformed Presbyterian Church here. While some 500 of his fellow Kansans looked on to pay him tribute, the noted artist was lowered into a simple grave, marked only by a granite boulder, that over-looked the windmills, barns, and farm homes which he portrayed so often ... A great Kansas artist, who had painted boldly, in vivid and often controversial fashion, was home to stay."
The Legacy of John Steuart Curry
Though he enjoyed much success in his own lifetime and was undoubtably a painter of great power and importance, Curry's legacy is a complex one that is in flux to this day. His time in Wisconsin encouraged a host of rural artists and helped to start an annual art fair, but after his death his reputation has been overshadowed by Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, whose styles were bolder and more idiosyncratic. Certainly, the rise of Abstract Expressionism dampened his reputation even further. Many of the Abstract Expressionists saw Curry and his ilk as political and aesthetical conservatives, representing everything that art should react against. For the younger avant-gardists, art should strive for internationalism instead of regionalism and shake off the yoke of traditionalism. While Curry's native Kansans didn't appreciate his state capitol murals at the time, in the early 1990s, the state senate passed a resolution that "officially recognized the legislature's poor treatment" of the artist, according to the Kansas Historical Society, ensuring his reputation as an important artist. More recent critics and historians have begun to reassess Curry's formal experimentation and his use of multiple perspective points, embracing his technical awkwardness as an important formal innovation.