The Historical Art of American Events Depicted by John Curry

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During the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, America and its citizens dealt with many problems that influenced their lives, usually for the worst. During this time, all Americans dealt with the effects of the Great Depression, which caused many economic problems for individuals and families in all parts of the country. One region that struggled in more damaging ways includes the Midwest, this region dealt with the problems of the Great Depression and then had to deal with the Dust Bowl which caused many problems for farmers to make any source of income to support themselves and their families during this dark time. America did show some light, and this was shown through different forms of art that artists found to show those struggles and the effects that those times had on the people. During this time in the Midwest, a group of artists started realistically painting and drawing the region in which they lived and showed the ruralness and small-town American people, towns, communities, and countryside throughout their paintings, illustrations, and murals. These originators of the Regionalism art movement throughout the Midwest and a few other areas in the country in the late 1920s and 1930s were Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry. The artist that shows these ideas of middle America very fluently in his works is John Steuart Curry who was an artist that did a lot for art and to showcase his region of America in Kansas. This man lived an interesting life and a story that should be told, this project will tell you more about Curry’s life, his artistic upbringing, some of his art and critic’s views, as well as his legacy to art and the Midwest.

John Steuart Curry was born on a farm outside Dunavant, Kansas on November 14, 1897, to his two parents Margaret Steuart Curry and Thomas Smith Curry as their first child of five. Both his parents, Margaret and Thomas were well-educated college graduates and they were a major influence for helping John Steuart Curry realize his love and joy of art and Curry had his first art class at the age of 12. (Britannica) Curry went to his local high school in Dunavant, Kansas until he decided to drop out of high school with his parents support and he decided to attend college at the Kansas City Art Institute, then transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago, and lastly graduated from Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania with his degree in Commercial Illustration. After graduation, he started working with a fellow illustrator Harvey Dunn, to make illustrations that later made several appearances in magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and the Boy Scouts of America’s magazine Boy’s Life. (Torchia and Southwick) He then moved to New York City, New York in 1923 where he married Clara Derrick and bought his studio in Westport, Connecticut. In 1926, Curry decided to stop making his illustrations and moved to Paris to take art classes in drawing while studying there. Once Curry moved back to his studio in Westport, Connecticut, in 1927, at his studio, he made his most famous paintings, including Baptism in Kansas in 1927 and Tornado Over Kansas in 1929. After doing some traveling as an illustrator with circuses like the Ringling Bros. and the Barnum and Bailey Circus, his wife sadly passed away in July of 1932. (“A Finding…”) After two years of working in New York City as an Art Instructor, he found his new love of Kathleen Gould Shepherd and happily got married to her in 1934 and returned to his studio in Connecticut. The next year, the Federal Arts Project hired Curry to paint several Murals in the Department of Justice and the Department of Interior buildings in Washington, D.C. where he concluded them in 1936. After this time, Curry decided to move back to the Midwest to be a residency artist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. At that point, he was hired and persuaded to come back to Kansas to make some murals at the state capitol in Topeka. He ran into some controversy with these murals and decided not to finish or sign them and returned to Madison, Wisconsin. A few years later, John Steuart Curry abruptly passed away at the young age of 48 due to a heart attack and died on August 29th, 1946 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Torchia and Southwick)

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An example of John Steuart Curry’s work would include his 1929 painting, Tornado Over Kansas. This painting shows a family of a husband and wife, and their 4 children running away from a tornado in the distance. The children can be seen carrying a cat, a few puppies, and a dog. It shows a white barn in the background, a little shed, and a few horses running frantically in the background and a white hen looking towards the frightened family. The family is shown running towards an underground bunker in the bottom left of the painting. The faces of the family members show fear and worry for their safety as they quickly move towards the bunker to escape the tornado approaching quickly but look towards the manly father in the picture for support and as the protector to guide them safely. This painting received lots of glory by receiving a second-place award in 1930 at the “Century in Progress” exhibition and this art piece has been published well over 150 times since first released in publishing’s such as textbooks, art magazines, and infamously was featured in the Time magazine in 1934. (Torchia and Southwick) His inspiration for this piece was founded in his time in Paris, while there, he found his discontent in the European style of Academicism and the Modernist art movement. With that discontent for those styles, he found that the style that appealed to him the most was a style that would interest and attract the common man, so he made this new style that would show the themes of the Midwest in his own experiences and memories in Kansas. (Junker and Curry) This new art style of this period was soon to be named and known as Regionalism and at the forefront of this style were its founders, including John Steuart Curry, Thomas Hart Benton, and Grant Wood. (Czestochowski)

While his works were praised by many, there are always people who don’t agree or like his paintings for several reasons. Some reasons his pieces were critiqued is because the critics believed that he only showed the bad and gloomy aspects of Kansas lifestyles and history. Critics believed that John Steuart Curry’s Tornado over Kansas painting was only showcasing the miserable and despairing weather that Kansas residents inhabited and thought that this painting gave a bad reputation to Kansas as a state. (Kansapedia) This same type of harsh reactions also came to his art murals at the Kansas State Capitol that he was hired to do. Curry painted a huge part of Kansas history and painted the infamous Abolitionist John Brown standing towards the front of the painting and a war of union and confederate soldiers behind him fighting to show a little of the events that went down in Kansas in 1861 to decide if it would join the Union or the Confederate Army, and this led to the events that were later named as the Bleeding Kansas crisis when abolitionists and people who wanted slaves fought to decide the state’s side of the war. (“The John Steuart…”) So, these critics came about again to debate about his murals in the state capitol, this time they were arguing that John Brown shouldn’t be at the forefront of the mural and stating that these murals didn’t accurately portray Kansas and decided to include unrepresentative parts of history like John Brown and Tornados instead of the true Kansas items. So, these critics were demanding for Curry’s murals to be brought down, but it never happened and instead Curry decided that he didn’t want to deal with this controversy and uproar for everything he painted, and with that he determined that he wouldn’t finish or sign the murals and just decided to head back to his home in Madison, Wisconsin instead. (Kansapedia)

John Steuart Curry leaves behind a great legacy that many people could aspire to have. Overall, Curry was one of the greatest artists in the 20th century everywhere except for his home state which didn’t want anything to do with Curry and his paintings of Kansas until just recently. Kansas residents are now praising and admiring his beautiful works 40-70 years after his death and the Kansas Senate officially recognized its poor treatment of one of Kansas’s best artists in its history. (Kansapedia) His piece Tornado Over Kansas is now seen as one of America’s greatest art pieces in its history and many of his other artworks still live on as they are now showcased around the country and some of his art can be found in government buildings like the Kansas State Capitol, The Department of Justice, and The Department of Interior showing crucial parts of America’s history. Other art pieces of his art are showcased in the Museum of Fine Arts, Huntington Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Torchia and Southwick) His art style and techniques have been adopted and used by many artists since his prime time in art and have inspired those artists to create the same type of art that Curry loved to make and show. Overall his works can be admired by the common man just as he wanted, and they do show the region of Kansas well, even if their residents didn’t always believe it did at the time. Curry, along with other regionalism artists presented Middle America to the other parts of America and the world that other regions had not before seen this special and often forgotten about particular region of America and this presents the importance of Curry’s life and works that the Midwestern people shouldn’t forget about.

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