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 John Steuart Curry  (1897 - 1946)

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Lived/Active: Kansas/Pennsylvania/Connecticut/Wisconsin      Known for: rural genre, landscape and figure painting, regionalism

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John Steuart Curry
from Auction House Records.
Preliminary Study for a Mural: Oklahoma Land Rush
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Dunavant, Kansas on November 14, 1897, John Steuart Curry became the youngest member of the famed "Benton-Wood-Curry trio" of Regional Painters of the early 20th-century American Scene movement.

He gained national reputation for his Kansas rural scenes of people terrorized by natural phenomena such as tornadoes, drab farm-house living conditions, religious gatherings such as prayer meeting and baptisms, and spirited animals who got out of control.  A good example of his weather-related painting was Tornado Over Kansas, 1929, in the collection of the Muskegon Museum of Art in Muskegon, Michigan.  In this scene, a family scurries for shelter, trying to outrun a funnel cloud headed for their home.  The mother carries her baby, and the children rescue pets and toys. It was later said that Curry never directly experienced a tornado but had many scares from them as a child when his family, faced with frightening skies, made frequent trips to their fruit cellar. In 1933, Tornado Over Kansas received second prize at the Carnegie International Exhibit.

He was especially focused on people who were down-to-earth, plain spoken and who were self reliantly making a living through hard physical labor challenged by harsh weather.  In many of his paintings, he showed his disdain for racial discrimination and hatred, something he believed was psychologically poisonous.  He did many murals dealing with land settlement and these themes of racial justice, and his, reflecting these themes, murals are in the Capitol Building in Kansas, the University of Wisconsin, Department of the Interior, and Department of Justice in Washington D.C.

Curry was a descendant of many generations of farmers, whose American ancestors originally were from Scotland.  Some of them immigrated to South Carolina, and later followed "the line of the frontier into the Mississippi Valley."

The first born of five children, Curry said of his childhood: "I was raised on hard work and the shorter catechism---Up at four o'clock the year round, doing half a day's work before we rode to town on horseback to our lessons."

From a young age, he was constantly drawing, an activity encouraged by his mother, who arranged art lessons for him from age 12.  She also gave him his first glimpse of the Old Master painters through reproductions of their work she had collected on her honeymoon.

Never of the studious nature, Curry quit the county high school in Winchester, Kansas and spent that summer as a railroad section-hand. His earnings provided him with enough money to buy a suit of clothes so that he could go to Kansas City and attend the Art Institute. A month later he moved to the Art Institute of Chicago, and remained there for two years, supporting himself by sweeping floors and acting as a bus-boy in the cafeteria. Upon America's declaration of war, Curry went to training camp, only to be sent home when it was discovered that he was still under age.  In 1918 he enrolled at Geneva College, played football for two seasons, and spent the following five years training to earn his money as an illustrator of "blood-and-thunder" scenes for a popular western story magazine.  In this capacity, he worked for illustrator Harvey Dunn in New Jersey from 1919 to 1926.  He married and then persuaded art patron Seward Prosser to loan him $1000. 00,, which he used for one year of study in Paris in 1927.

The year in Europe, which included study at the Academy Julian, reinforced his independent nature.  He was much more impressed by the paintings of Rembrandt and Rubens than by the modernist American painters, many whom were adopting the 'isms' of abstract styles of French contemporary artists such as Pablo Picasso's Cubism and Max Ernst's Surrealism.  Curry determined to paint American subjects without European models and to celebrate American patriotism and regional pride rather than lofty, remote ideals espoused by the academics.

He returned to America penniless, and settling in Westport, Connecticut, swore that he would turn out a worthwhile picture or give up painting entirely.  There in 1928 from memory he painted his first picture that became famous, Baptism in Kansas.  Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney bought it for her museum and subsidized him for two years at $50 a week.

Baptism in Kansas was heralded nationally as work of a new American genre, but fellow Kansans were not impressed until much later when they realized the scope of his recognition.  Purchased by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, one of his key benefactors, Baptism launched his career as a regionalist.  In 1930, he had his first one-man exhibition, held at the Whitney Studio Club, and was received enthusiastically by critics.

Although he lived primarily in the East, he returned often to Kansas where he stayed at his parents' farm and sketched rural-life scenes.  His first wife died, and he gave up his studio in Westport, and secluded himself in a drab New York City studio. He taught at the Cooper Union and the Art Students' League, and held a show of circus studies after touring New England with Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Circus.  This tour and the resulting circus sketches and watercolors were inspired from his attendance in Kansas at many rural county fairs. Reportedly the circus people said they liked Curry but "quibbled over minor technical errors in his series of circus paintings."

In 1934 he married Kathleen Shepard, returned to Westport, recovered his old enthusiasm, and painted one of his most famous paintings, Line Storm.  Westport beginning to appreciate him, commissioned him to do a double mural for the local high school.  Additionally, the United States government selected him to paint murals for the Department of Justice and the Department of Interior buildings in Washington, D.C.  He was appointed Artist-in-Residence in the College of Agriculture, University of Wisconsin, in 1936.  At $4,000 a year he had his studio on the campus, where he could mingle with students, but he conducted no formal classes.

Curry also traveled occasionally to Arizona where he visited his parents who had a second home there and spent their winters. The Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art in Manhattan, Kansas, is the repository of the Curry archives including many paintings.  According to Bill North, the Museum’s Senior Curator, Curry “did produce a number of paintings and watercolors with Arizona subjects, some, certainly prior to 1940.  Relatively little is known about this aspect of his life and work.  I assume that many, if not all of Curry’s Arizona paintings were produced in his studio at home from drawings he made while in Arizona.  It’s possible that some of the watercolors were executed in Arizona.”

Curry always tried to instill "community appreciation of art" wherever he went. Kansas long neglected its native sun during his life, but did commission him to do a series of murals for its state capitol in Topeka, for $20,000.

He was a member of the Art Students' League and won numerous prizes including; Purchase prize, North West Print Maker, fifth annual Exhibition, 1933; second prize, Thirty-first International Exhibition, Carnegie Institute, 1933; gold medal, PAFA, 1941; prize ($3,000), Artists for Victory Exhibition, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1941 and others.

He died in Madison, Wisconsin in 1946.

Sources:
http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0HTZ/is_2_131/ai_83665075#continue (Gale Group)
Blake Benton Fine Art
Vivian Kiechel Fine Art
Bill North, Senior Curator, The Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art (via 12/06/06 email)
Exhibition Record (Museums, Institutions and Awards):
First one-man show in NY, 1931; 25th McPherson Exhibition (Catalogue of the Annual Art Exhibit. McPherson: McPherson High School Press, 1911-35) (Catalogue of the Annual Art Exhibit. McPherson: McPherson High School Press, 1911-35) 1935; KCAI, Oct. 1936; Midwestern Artists’ Exhibition, 1936; Midwestern Artists Exhibition, 1937; Nelson- Atkins Museum of Art, 1998.
Memberships:
National Academy of Design (Association 1937, Full 1943); Art Students League.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:

The following was written and compiled by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California:

John Steuart Curry was born in 1897 in Dunavant, Kansas and grew up on a Kansas farm where he was  "up at 4 o'clock the year round, doing half a day's work before we rode to town on horseback for our lessons."  He attended Geneva College in Pennsylvania, where he was a star halfback. He trained at the Art Institute of Kansas City and then at the Art Institute of Chicago. He came to public notice with realistic scenes of American life and became a leader of the Regionist Group, dramatizing and romanticing the life of the middle West and the sagas of the American pioneers.  His country background gave vigor to his paintings of Kansas cyclones, circuses and his murals of John Brown.  John Curry is famous not because he always painted the American scene but because he always painted it well.

In December 1936, Curry was appointed Artist-in-residence at Wisconsin University.  Instead of teaching formal art classes, he was expected to mingle with the students, encourage painting among those who showed talent and in his studio instruct a few most promising students. 

Curry's career shows what intelligent patronage can do for American artists.  After he had failed as a magazine illustrator, he was sent to Paris by Art Patron Seward Prosser.  Later Curry's brother bought him a Connecticut house and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney subsidized him for two years at $50 a week.  His biography shows that his regionalism did not depend on residency in Kansas.  Quite the reverse: in 1919 he moved east, first to New Jersey, then to New York City and finally to Westport, Connecticut.  After a visit back to the farm in 1929 he began his Kansas paintings, but work as an illustrator in the East and his visit to Paris preceded his formulation of a regional style.  The actual works were painted in the East.

 Curry painted many murals for Washington's Goverment buildings, his work hangs in the Metropolitan Museum and he ranks with top United States artists. He has shown in the Whitney Museum of American Art and in the Chicago Art Institute. His patrons agree they never made a better investment.  He died in 1946.

Sources include:
The Oxford Companion to 20th Century Art, edited by Harold Osborne
Life Magazine (date unknown)
Art in America, July, August 1976


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born Dunavent, Nov. 14, 1897; died Madison, WI. Aug. 29, 1946. Painter, specialized in rural genre, landscape. Sculptor. Lithographer. Teacher. Attended Winchester High School where he was an outstanding athlete. Except for one winter in Arizona, he spent his youth on the farm. At the end of his junior year in high school, he entered Kansas City Art Institute (1916) and then went to the Art Institute of Chicago (1916-18), where he studied under Edward Timmons and John Norton. Also studied at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA, as a special student. Began his artistic career as an apprentice to illustrator Henry Dunn in Tenafly, NJ. Established a studio at Westport, CT and worked as an illustrator. Sailed for Paris, October 1926, to study art. He returned to New York where, in 1928, Mrs. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney saw “Baptism in Kansas,” which she purchased for her museum and subsidized Curry for two years. 57 During this time he painted “Tornado over Kansas,” which won him a Carnegie award. He remained in New York until 1936 teaching at Cooper Union, then at Art Students League and making summer trips to Kansas. In Spring 1932, he toured with the Ringling Brothers producing his brilliant circus paintings. He became Artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin in 1936. In June 1937, a group of newspaper editors began a movement to commission Curry to paint murals in the Kansas Statehouse. When Curry learned of the mural proposal he stated, "I have my own ideas about telling the story of pioneers coming into Kansas. I want to paint this war with nature and I want to paint the things I feel as a native Kansan." Curry planned the murals as a three-act conception: the settlement of Kansas including the Conquistadores, the plainsmen, and John Brown; the life of the homesteader; and pastoral prosperity, including modern Kansas with its farms and its industry. Amidst conflicts, controversy and criticism, Curry completed the murals in the summer of 1942 and considered the paintings to be his greatest work.
Source:
AWARDS:
Purchase Prize Northwest Printmakers 5th Annual Exhibition, 1933; 2nd prize, 31st International Exhibition, Carnegie Institute, 1933; Gold medal, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1941; and others.

COLLECTIONS:
Whitney Museum of American Art; murals in Kansas State Capitol, Topeka; Art Institute of Chicago; Metropolitan Museum; St. Louis Art Museum; Wichita Art Museum; Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA; murals, “Comedy” and “Tragedy,” Westport CT. High School; murals for Department of Justice Building, Washington died C.; University of Nebraska, Beach Museum; Sandzén Memorial Art Gallery; murals in Kansas state capitol; Topeka Public Library; Spencer Museum of Art; Anschutz Collection; and many more.

MEMBERSHIPS:
National Academy of Design (Association 1937, Full 1943); Art Students League.

SOURCES:
Susan Craig, "Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945)"
Survey (July 1, 1930); American Artist (Jan. 1976); Art Digest ( Feb. 15, 1935,Oct. 1, 1936); Kansas Magazine (1947); Festival of Kansas Arts and Crafts. Catalog: Arts and Crafts of Kansas: an Exhibition held in Lawrence, Feb. 18-22, 1948 in the Community Building. Lawrence: World Co., 1948 (il); Bell, Jonathan Wesley, Ed. The Kansas Art Reader. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1976.; Sain, Lydia. Kansas Artists, compiled by Lydia Sain from 1932 to 1948. Typed Manuscript, 1948.; Who’s Who in American Art. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1936- v.1=1936-37 v.3= 1941-42 v.2=1938-39 v.4=1940-47.1-3; Newlin, Gertrude Dix (Development of Art in Kansas. Typed Manuscript, 1951); Dunbier, Paul. The Dunbier Value Guide; Over 1200 Painters in the Western U.S. Before 1920. Scottsdale: Altamira Press, 1981., Paul. The Dunbier, Paul. The Dunbier Value Guide; Over 1200 Painters in the Western U.S. Before 1920. Scottsdale: Altamira Press, 1981. Value Guide; Over 1200 Painters in the Western U.S. Before 1920. Scottsdale: Altamira Press, 1981.; Cone, Mary Ellen. The Status of Kansas Literature and Art. Typed manuscript, 1939.; Dawdy, Doris Ostrander. Artists of the American West: A Biographical Dictionary. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1974. Samuels, Peggy. Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1976.; Art in Federal Buildings: an illustrated record of the Treasury Department’s New Program in Painting and Sculpture. Volume 1: Mural Design, 1934-36. Washington, DC: Art in Federal Buildings Inc., 1936; Dawdy 2: Dawdy, Doris Ostrander. Artists of the American West: A Biographical Dictionary. Volume 2. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1981.; American Art Annual. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1898-194722; Who’s Who in American Art. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1936- v.1=1936-37 v.3= 1941-42 v.2=1938-39 v.4=1940-47.1; Midwestern Artists’ Exhibition (Kansas City: Kansas City Art Institute, 1920-1942 Mines, Cynthia. For the Sake of Art: The Story of an Art Movement in Kansas. s.l. Mines, 1979.) 1936, 1937; numerous books including Junker Patricia A, and Henry Adams. John Steuart Curry: Inventing the Middle West. (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1998) and Schmeckebier, Laurence Eli. John Steuart Curry’s Pagent of America. (New York: American Artists Group, 1943); TPL
This and over 1,750 other biographies can be found in Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945) compiled by Susan V. Craig, Art & Architecture Librarian at University of Kansas.

Biography from Williams American Art Galleries:
John Steuart Curry, a leader of the American Regionalist movement, was born on a farm near Dunavant, Kansas on 14 November 1897.  He paid his way through art school working first as a railroad section hand in Kansas City and then as a menial laborer in Chicago.  In 1919, after playing football and studying for a year at Geneva College, he moved to New York City to study illustration with Harvey Dunn.

During the early 1920s, Curry struggled to make a living as an artist and consequently welcomed the opportunity to study in Europe.  With a patron financing the trip, Curry moved to Paris in 1926 and spent the next year studying at Schoukhaieff’s Russian Academy.  At this time, the burgeoning expressionist and abstract movements influenced many artists; Curry, however, differed from his contemporaries and was more interested with the work of Gustave Courbet and Peter Paul Rubens.

After his return from Paris he settled in Westport, CT.  He always said that an artist should paint what he knows best.  Following his own advice, he turned his interest inward and began drawing subject matter from his youth.  His 1928 painting Baptism in Kansas, painted entirely from memory, received critical acclaim and earned Curry recognition from the New York art world.

Embracing the Midwest values of his youth, he incorporated these into his work and juxtaposed them against rural landscapes and storm scenes.  Art historian Matthew Baigell stated: “To Curry, man’s actions on the land, his contest with nature for dominance, was the basic American experience.  Curry, recognized the capacities of both – nature’s ability to devastate the land and man’s ability to bring great riches from the soil.” Within these scenes of man’s interactions with nature and much of Curry’s other works there is an underlying religious theme combined with a yearn for nostalgia, “a nostalgia for his own youth as well as for the old and simple distinctions between right and wrong.”

Curry also enjoyed teaching.  After traveling with the Ringling Brothers Circus in 1932, he taught for four years at the Art Students League and Cooper Union.  In1936 he returned to the Midwest and settled at the University of Wisconsin where he was artist-in-residence until his unexpected death in 1946.

Biography from James Graham & Sons, Est. 1857:
While many American artists were experimenting with abstraction during the 1920s and 1930s, there still flourished a tradition of realism which documented particularly American scenes.  The most successful and well-known realist painters of this time were Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry.  It was perhaps the Depression that inspired these artists to document the endurance and valor of the daily lives of their countrymen.

Curry began his artistic training at the Art Institute of Kansas.  From 1916 to 1918 he attended the Chicago Art Institute School, studying under E.J. Timmons and John W. Norton.  He studied at the Geneva College in Pennsylvania from 1918 to 1919 and then studied with the distinguished illustrator, Harvey Dunn.

Finally, Curry’s work was too original for the business of illustration.  After seven years in the business, he abandoned his commercial career and went to Paris where he studied with Basil Schoukhaiff at the Russian Academy.

It was after his return to the States in 1927 that he began to execute a unique series of paintings of rural America, which firmly established his reputation.

By the end of WWII, these unique “regional” painters would fall out of fashion as the abstract expressionists would begin their ascendancy in the world of art , making the United States, particularly, New York, the center for artistic revolution.  The regionalists would be eclipsed for only a few decades before America would rediscover their singular contribution to the history of American painting.

Biography from Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art:
The following is a copy of the press release relative to the museum acquisition of work by John Steuart Curry.  Courtesy, Kathrine Schlageck, Education and Public Services Director.

"K-State’s Beach Museum of Art Receives John Steuart Curry Art Work"

Manhattan, KS – The Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art has received over 900 works by Kansas-born artist John Steuart Curry, making the Museum’s holdings of work by Curry the largest in the country.  The gift was left to the Museum by Curry’s widow, Mrs. Kathleen G. Curry.

Curry, best known in Kansas for his mural of John Brown in the capitol in Topeka, was a well-known artist in the 1930s and 1940s, with work in major museums such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.  Curry, along with Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, lead the Regionalist movement which was based on painting America’s heartland.

Mrs. Curry died in September of 2001, just a few days short of her 102nd birthday. Through the years she had carefully maintained the collection of her husband’s work.  The gift includes paintings, watercolors, drawings, lithographs, and page proofs for book illustrations.  Subject matter ranges from figure studies, landscapes, views of the circus, Cuba, football scenes, to animals.

Beach Museum of Art director Lorne Render stated, “This is an outstanding addition to the Museum’s permanent collection by a major American regionalist artist.  Mrs. Curry was most generous to leave her husband’s collection to the Beach Museum of Art.  The opportunities for research, study and exhibition are enormous and we look forward to sharing this significant gift in the future.”

John Steuart Curry was born in Dunavant, Kansas in 1897, to a family of hardworking Presbyterian farmers.  He showed an early interest in art and attended the Kansas City Art Institute (1916), the Chicago Art Institute (1916-1918), and apprenticed himself to illustrator Harvey Dunn in New Jersey in 1920.  He studied in Paris in 1926-27 and returned to paint Baptism in Kansas, which was purchased in 1928 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney for her new museum of American art in New York City.  He remained in the New York area until 1936, making summer trips to Kansas, until he was appointed artist-in-residence at the School of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin.

Curry’s first Kansas exhibition, which traveled to Kansas City, Topeka, Manhattan, and Wichita during 1931-32, was due to efforts by Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White and Kansas-born art dealer Maynard Walker of the Ferargil Gallery in New York City.  After seeing the exhibition, John Helm, Jr. and the Friends of Art at Kansas State Agricultural College began working on raising funds to purchase a Curry painting for the school’s growing art collection.  The original price of the work in 1934 was $1,200, but the price was lowered to $500 due to the fact the Curry’s mother attended Kansas State Agricultural College and the ability to raise funds was hampered by the Depression. On April 17, 1935, with the purchase of Sun Dogs, K-State became the first public institution in Kansas to purchase a work by Curry.  Curry donated a watercolor and four lithographs at the time as a token of his appreciation.

In 1937, after a campaign by White and regionalist painter Grant Wood, Kansas announced that funds were being raised to hire Curry to paint murals at the capitol in Topeka.  Curry worked on this project from 1937 to 1941, never actually finishing the original design. Many Kansans were distressed at the choice of John Brown as a Kansas hero.  Curry died, disheartened by his poor reception in Kansas, in 1946.

Through the efforts of K-State graduate Don Lambert and Mrs. Ruth Ann Wefald, the Friends of the Beach Museum of Art were able to celebrate the 1996 opening of the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art with the purchase of a second major Curry oil painting entitled Sunrise (over Kansas), painted in 1935.  In the ensuing years Mrs. Wefald and Mr. Lambert developed a strong friendship with Kathleen Curry, visiting her often at her Connecticut home.  It was this friendship, and K-State’s continued interest in her husband’s work, that led Mrs. Curry to donate the large and important collection to the Museum.






Biography from Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery:
John Steuart Curry
(1897-1946)

Born in rural Dunavant, Kansas, John Stuart Curry’s career as an artist spans only two decades from 1924, when he first exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York, until his death in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1946. They were however, decades that shook the foundation of American life and art. Defined by the Great Depression and the country’s entry into World War II, they were years of upheaval that would reshape the economic, political, and social structure of the nation and challenge the spiritual and moral grounding of all humanity.

As a product of the Middle West, Curry was an artist of these times who was raised by a family of devout Scottish Calvinists who struggled in the face of the nation’s economic ruin and social upheaval to find meaning in religious faith.

Curry elevated the rural Midwestern landscape to a higher level of discourse - to a consideration of social and spiritual values. At its best Curry art has the power to transcend region, and that, in the end, is what makes it such a revealing window into a time and a place.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.


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