John Steuart Curry: A Regionalist Perspective

JOHN STEUART CURRY (1897-1946)
Together we stood for an art whose forms and meanings would have direct and easily comprehended
relevance to the American culture of which we were by blood and daily life a part.
– Thomas Hart Benton

John Steuart Curry was born in Dunavant, Kansas, and, after training at the Chicago Art Institute, the Kansas City Art Institute and Paris’s Academie Julian, major publications such as the Saturday Evening Post gainfully employed his talent for illustration. While teaching at the Art Student’s League and Cooper Union in New York City, Curry rejected the impersonal quality of industrialism to favor subject matter reflective of his agrarian background. Moreover, the circus spectacle that he enjoyed in the rural county fairs inspired him to tour with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, from which were borne a series of sketches, watercolors and paintings that captured the rich pageantry of carnival life. 

From 1936 to 1946, Curry served as the first artist-in-residence for the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agriculture. In this role, Curry focused on familiar Wisconsin themes such as the University football team, livestock, and the rural landscape surrounding Madison as a way to connect the students and faculty with the rural community. 

Curry was commissioned for several mural projects: the Department of the Interior and Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., as well as the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka. Their subject matter reflected Curry’s desire to create art meaningful to the American people. His work is also installed in numerous museums, including the Whitney and Metropolitan Museums in New York.

In the words of Harry Wickey: “One is convinced that the story Curry paint[ed] actually  happened. It seems to me that this fulfills Walt Whitman’s hope and prophecy of a truly great native art growing out of American life.” 

The following collection of works comes from the family of the artist & private collections.


 

Amazons web

The Battle of the Amazons, 1927, Oil on canvas, 33.25 x 39.25 inches, Signed lower right

The Battle of the Amazons (1927), a painting from Mrs. Curry’s private collection, is the pivotal work of John Steuart Curry’s mature artistic career. During his eight months of study in Paris with Basil Schoukeif, Curry frequently visited the Louvre Museum. Baroque artists, particularly Rubens, left a lasting impression on the Midwesterner. In Rubens’ painting, Battle of the Amazons (1615), Theseus, the ancient Greek hero, routs the warrior women. Curry uses the same theme of this myth with his own unique
interpretation of the event. Active nudes fill his large canvas with “rubenesque” relish. An Amazon woman, knife in hand, lunges toward the Greek warrior. His death seems certain. The Amazon women are not routed in this painting.

After Paris, Curry no longer worked as an illustrator under the dictates of a magazine. He relished the influence of great artists but used the format for his own unique message. His views about gender, equality, race, and war put him light years ahead of his peers. Curry’s Battle of the Amazons inspired him to interpret these subjects with an independence of thought and a boldness of vision molded from his Kansas background. 

– Vivian Kiechel


 

Nude in a Waterfall

Nude in a Waterfall, 1941, Oil on canvas, 23.50 x 17.25 inches, Signed lower right “John Steuart Curry 1941”

“Almost all the people you see in Curry’s paintings are not people who posed for him but people he loved—his family. The figure in this painting is believed to be Mildred, Curry’s favorite sister. She never posed for him, but he often used her likeness although it is unclear whether or not he was aware of this. At the age of 4, Mildred was involved in a carriage accident that permanently paralyzed and shortened her arm which might be why the figure’s right arm is tucked out of view. Additionally, Mildred had enviously rich auburn hair.”

 – Interpretation adapted from Sunshine Schuster, phone interview, April 7, 2018


 

BlackCatSleeping

Black Cat Sleeping, 1929, Oil on canvas, 20.00 x 26.00 inches, Signed and dated lower left “John Steuart Curry ‘29”

“A black cat, sometimes with a few white markings, appears in Curry’s work frequently. Curry loved cats and appreciated their wild nature, which is why he always showed them in action. In Black Cat Sleeping, Curry merely suggests the hallmark action of the cats in his artwork. The cat is in repose against a lovely, rich background that is earthy and vibrant. But the cat is not really asleep, just resting; those eyes are alert. In a way, the painting depicts the more peaceful side of Curry and his love of animals. It is so true to Curry’s nature, there is always a duality. I think the cat in repose was wishful thinking of a little rest because Curry was really at war with his art during this time—he had just been ordered to repaint a section of the mural for the Department of Justice because it was too controversial. I think he was seeking the absolute peace of cats when they are resting.” 

– Sunshine Schuster, phone interview, April 7, 2018


 

GoldenHorse_72jpg

Golden Horse, 1935, Oil on board, 23.25 x 35.50 inches, Signed lower left “John Steuart Curry”

Curry began drawing horses on his family’s farm as a boy, and the horse appears often in his mature art. In his attempts to render anatomy and movement, he studied not only live horses but also those rendered by the old masters, including Eugène Delacroix, Peter Paul Rubens, and Leonardo da Vinci. The bared teeth and wild eyes of this running horse especially resemble the artist’s action studies of horses after Da Vinci. (Worcester Art Museum drawings 1999.240-242 and Schmeckebier 1943, p. 56)

The drama evoked here may connect Golden Horse to one of Curry’s illustration commissions. Curry contributed art to an edition of Mary O’Hara’s 1941 novel, My Friend Flicka, set on a horse ranch
outside Cheyenne, Wyoming, and its sequel, Thunderhead, of 1943. The Curry-illustrated volumes were released as a two-volume set in early 1944 by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Curry was by then not only a practiced horse painter, he had also trekked the Wyoming landscape. A sketchbook in the Worcester Art Museum reveals that he traveled through South Dakota into the Powder River Basin area in
Wyoming around 1941. (Worcester Art Museum sketchbook 1991.314)

The stirring Golden Horse recalls an event in the book Flicka in which the filly’s mother, Rocket, is spooked by the young Ken and nearly runs off a cliff until she is corralled by Banner, Flicka’s sire.
Rocket is a black horse, however, with white circles around the eyes. This golden horse, with its white stockings and nose, more closely resembles a horse in a Curry watercolor identified as a study for My Friend Flicka. This work shows the boy Ken, Flicka’s owner, placing a bit into the mouth of a hesitant horse—presumably the book’s star—below rocky hills. 

The “golden horse” in front of a herd of horses running across the high plains perhaps resembles most closely the frontispiece Curry created for Flicka, showing the grown filly or her sire (without white markings). In his Golden Horse, Curry may have been experimenting with his imagery for Flicka, or he may have been inspired enough by the project to create a large oil painting of an equine drama on the Wyoming prairie. 

– Elizabeth G. Seaton, Curator, Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Kansas State University


 

Morning_Updated

Morning II (Sunrise Over Kansas), 1941, Oil and tempera on canvas mounted on panel, 37.00 x 60.00 inches, Signed lower right “John Steuart Curry”

Dramatic weather plays a significant role in Curry’s art, in part as a reminder of human frailty. An approaching thunderstorm threatens to overtake a group of farm workers bringing in freshly cut hay, a violent tornado sends a white farm family into an underground shelter, a flooded Mississippi River forces an African-American family onto their roof. These threats can also be seen as metaphors for events in the artist’s life, biographer Laurence Schmeckebier has argued: a troubled first marriage, the malaise of the Great Depression, and dread of the coming war.

Less talked about are the happier sunrises in Curry’s work, which reveal themselves as ubiquitous. Whether playing part in an ensemble, as in Curry’s Kansas Pastoral mural for the Kansas Statehouse,  or acting as the main character, as in Morning II, the sunrise might be considered the natural
occurrence that best represents Curry’s positive feelings about life and world events: his more
successful second marriage in the mid-1930s, the periods during which critics lauded his work, or the promise of New Deal jobs programs in which he participated. “In many ways the sunrise theme is another form of artistic self-portrait,” Schmeckebier said in his 1943 biography of the artist. “[I]t has become his common practice good-naturedly to add a rough sketch of a sunrise over his signature whenever anyone asks for his autograph.” Curry made many fewer sunset than sunrise images.

In Morning II, the artist has captured the simple sunrise motif in all of its complexity, using white at the center to convey something so bright that it might hurt the eye and various hues, especially pink, to express the sun’s fleeting color effects on the sky and land. The artist presents a broad, elevated view of the emerging light that spreads across the Heart Ranch in Barber County, Kansas, with its rolling topography and red soil. Schmeckebier notes how the branches of an Osage orange tree stretch upward into deep pink clouds, heightening the drama. Curry often used trees and wildflowers to frame the sides and corners of his work so that they appear as a window into a natural revelation.

– Elizabeth G. Seaton, Curator, Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Kansas State University


 

Rainbow and View of Madison

Rainbow and View of Madison, 1937, Oil on panel, 36.50 x 48.00 inches, Signed and dated lower right

Painted at the pinnacle of John Steuart Curry’s career Rainbow and View of Madison is a magnificent allegory of Regionalist and American ideals. Although the rainstorms showering the city and state capitol foreshadow potential problems, the rainbow, rich fields and healthy livestock signify Curry’s hopes for the nation’s future. 

Curry felt the remedy for problems of the Great Depression would result from a strong agrarian culture. In 1936, Curry became the University of Wisconsin’s and one of America’s first “artist in residence.” He was attracted to Wisconsin’s mission and dedication to the principles of Progressivism, as well as the pioneering work of Chris L. Christensen, the university’s dean of the College of Architecture. The boundaries of the university were the boundaries of the state. Being a great friend of Wisconsin’s progressivist governor, Philip La Follette, Sr., Curry championed the party’s support of women’s suffrage, labor and education reform, and government accountability. 

While often described as a foe of European art, in fact Curry drew inspiration from both modern American and modern European artists. The theme of a rainbow over a fertile landscape echoes a famous painting by George Inness in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Peace and Plenty. In Curry’s painting, however, the placement of the rainbow creates a shape that frames the composition within a nearly symmetrical arch, a sort of self-consciously geometric approach that probably derives from the work of Cezanne; while his soft brushwork clearly pays tribute to the work of the Impressionist painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Curry, in short, was clearly interested in the modernist practice of creating “significant form,” and very consciously applied European modernist techniques to a representation of the American landscape.  

Perhaps the most powerful theme of Curry’s work was the weather. He had a special gift for making it something that seems to fill the entire composition. Arguably his most impressive paintings, such as The Tornado (1929, Hackley Gallery, Muskegon, Michigan) and The Line Storm (1934, private collection) feature dramatic storms which sweep across the Midwestern landscape. Rainbow Over Madison is one of Curry’s last and most notable renderings of this theme. What’s striking is how his soft, Renoir-like brushwork, with its nervous strokes that enliven every sector of the canvas, creates the feeling that the stormy atmosphere is not limited to one place, but pervades the air and fills the entire atmosphere of the scene.

Rainbow and View of Madison became the visual summation of Curry’s life work. The rainbow spans the city, the state capitol, and the country. This image crystallizes Curry’s hope that urban and rural societies would co-exist in harmony with responsible, honest
government after the Depression.

– Vivian Kiechel, PhD; Henry Adams PhD


 

John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benét
Illustrated by John Steuart Curry | Published in 1948 for The Limited Editions Club

MeloraintheCart

Melora in the Cart (From John Brown’s Body), 1944, Tempera with oil on paper laid on masonite, 21.13 x 37.00 inches, Signed lower right “John Steuart Curry”

“The artist told his biographer, Laurence Schmeckebier, that “The Ne’er Do well” represented migrants, the homeless people he saw on the roads around his father’s farm in Dunavant. Curry knew that these were farmers forced off their land by drought—by circumstances beyond their control—and forced into the kind of hopeless wandering westward that John Steinbeck would describe so movingly a decade later in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Not surprisingly, he recognized in such scenes a story that was as old and emotionally charged as Scripture, from the Old Testament trails of Job or the
Exodus of the Israelites to the New Testament flight into Egypt of the holy family. He distilled from this distinctly
modern and midwestern scene a timeless image of the dispossessed.” 

– Patricia Junker, John Steuart Curry and the Pathos of Modern Life: Paintings of the Outcast and the Dispossessed, 1998


 

Benton-Curry-Wood-PhotoWithGirls

Men from left to right: John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, and Thomas Hart Benton posing with ladies

 

Click here to view the entire John Steuart Curry exhibition online.

If you wish to receive a hard-copy or e-version of the accompanying catalog, please contact Kiechel Fine Art at 402-420-9553 or gallery@kiechelart.com



Kiechel Fine Art | 1208 O Street | Lincoln, NE 68508 | 402-420-9553 | gallery@kiechelart.com
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