Artist Highlight: Under the Big Top with John Steuart Curry

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

Today, August 29th, 2020 is the 74th anniversary of the death of American Regionalist, John Steuart Curry. 

Have these crazy times made you imagine running off to join the circus? John Steuart Curry did just that, seeking a reset of his personal life during equally turbulent times in America. It was 1932, and millions of Americans were unemployed. The country’s immersion in unrelenting economic hardship made it especially difficult for artists to sustain their families and their work. Curry left home to travel with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in April of ’32 to get “a new viewpoint on life”. This was the beginning of the artist’s most productive decade. 

From his summer tour of New England with the circus, Curry filled sketchbooks and created dozens of studies and watercolors of acrobats, animals, and awed spectators dazzled by the spellbinding performances under the Big Top. Curry drew on these studies in the years following his circus tour to create stirring lithographs and paintings, now in many major American museum collections.  

A lithograph, in black and greys, of 8 or 9 elephants standing in a row under a tent. In the left-hand corner is a goat in a pen. The elephants are eating from a pile of hay, raising their trunks.
John Steuart Curry, American, 1897-1946. Elephants. Lithograph, 1936. Gift of the Leslie Paul Motz Family, 2011.03. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The massive elephants he sketched are so like the mighty Kansas draft horses and the champion bulls Curry knew from his boyhood farm life and from the county fairs that are still an integral part of Kansas life. The pageantry of the circus must have evoked childhood memories of the spectacle of a typical county fair midway that the Curry family would have experienced many times. 

A gestural sketch of acrobats in the air. The background is blank, and the acrobats are loosely sketched to show the movement of their muscles. One is flying through the air, arms outstretched to grasp the hands of another who hangs upside down by the knees. Behind them, a woman glides through the air with her hands clasped to the bar, legs behind her.
John Steuart Curry, American, 1897-1946. The Passing Leap. Ink, graphite, pencil and ink wash on paper, 1932. Gift of Dorthea Fruechtenicht-Brown in memory of Mr. and Mrs. William Fruechtenicht, 1971.10. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Curry was especially fascinated by the bravery and grace of the death-defying trapeze artists of the Flying Codona family as portrayed in The Passing Leap.  

John Curry  was one of the triumvirate of American Regionalist painters, Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood making up the Big Three, whose work was popular in the late 1920s into the 1940s when the horrific realities of WWII and the rising star of Abstract Expressionism turned the artistic tastes of Americans away from representational art to abstraction. American Regionalism, while stoically portraying the American heartland with homespun pride, toward its decline in popularity suffered insults from proponents of the modern movements as “quaint, provincial, and old-fashioned”. Even claims of racism, fascism, and political propaganda were tossed at Benton, Curry, and Wood; but, in their heyday, Curry and his colleagues were greatly admired and popular with the American public. 

Curry was a farm boy, born and raised outside a small Kansas town, by sturdily conservative parents who recognized both their son’s struggles and his gifts. He was claustrophobic, terrified of storms, and a poor student, though talented athlete. He was obsessed with drawing – a fascination that overtook all other interests. His little sister, Mildred, recalled that John would stop plowing at the end of every row of corn to pull out his ever-present sketch pad to draw whatever was before him – rabbit, dove, or meadow lark. His textbooks and school papers were covered with sketches of animals, trains, motorcars, and people. Their father decided he would not try to make a farmer of the boy. He said, “John was always drawing.  Yes, he was a good worker on the farm, when we could get him away from his drawing.”  His mother wrote, “Life was a struggle for him. While not vitally interested in the farm, he did his share of the work and after a hard day in the fields, night found him at his drawing board while the household slept. Drawing, always drawing and no one to teach him except what little I could give him and a few lessons one summer, six miles away on horseback.” His paintings of farm life, animals, the land, and the bounty of the American breadbasket are steeped in an authenticity that Benton’s and Wood’s paintings of the Midwest are not. Curry tended to illustrate, draw, and paint only that which he had witnessed or had personally experienced, without idealizing the harsh, brutal, or violent. Even when living far away from the Kansas prairie, he was able to evoke the sensory experience of the land and its denizens and elements – their essence was so ingrained in him.  

Grant Wood wrote, “He painted from memory, the elemental terror of storms sweeping the prairie, the magnificence of the grain harvest, the brute struggle for survival. 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. He remembered the facts and accurately, but in his delineations he got beyond factual accuracy into the realm of perception and aesthetic intuition.” 

Curry’s art training began with lessons taught by a local woman who had studied a bit of art in Paris, Alice Worswick. Twelve-year-old John would ride the six miles to her home on the back of his gray mare, Daisy. Curry left high school after his junior year to study art at the Kansas City Art Institute, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Geneva College in Pennsylvania. His studies continued under illustrator Harvey Dunn, in New York. After working for a time as an illustrator of western scenes, he and his wife moved from Connecticut to Paris where he refined his painting skills under the tutelage of Basil Schoukhaieff. When he returned to America, his painting, Baptism in Kansas, 1928, (purchased in 1930 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney for her new museum), brought surprising acclaim to the artist who was chronically afflicted with self-doubt and insecurities over his painting abilities. The scene of an outdoor, full-immersion baptism in a cattle trough under a blazing prairie sky witnessed by a circle of typical country folk was an exotic and compelling tableau to art aficionados in the east who viewed the painting at the Eleventh Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.  

The 1930s, brutal for so many, and though difficult for Curry, also brought him much success. Curry continued to work sustained by the patronage of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, producing some of his most important paintings. He made the cover of TIME in ’34, and produced New Deal murals in Washington, D.C. from ’36-‘38. He taught at the Cooper Union and the Art Students League during these years. Also in ’36, Curry was named the first visual Artist-in-Residence at an American university by the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture, a post he would hold for the remaining decade of his life. Its purpose was to promote rural culture through regional art.  

The turbulence of the 1930s was also captured in many of his works of the era. Curry painted scenes of drama and passion, fear and anger, religious fervor and racism, and both the violent weather and the majestic beauty of the American plains. Two of his paintings were included in the 1935 NAACP exhibit, An Art Commentary on LynchingManhunt and The Fugitive both reveal a posse of armed men with guns and bloodhounds searching the forest for human quarry. In The Fugitive, a Black man desperately shelters in a tree, stalked by the armed hunters. The exhibition’s organizers’ goal was to underscore the need for anti-lynching legislation.    

Curry’s landscapes could be placid and serene or raging with violent weather. His painting, Line Storm, 1934, suggests a massive derecho growling on the horizon of Midwest farm fields, while Tornado Over Kansas, 1929,  captures the moments before the menacing twister closes in on a farmhouse while the family–pets and baby clutched tightly–scurry for shelter in the root cellar.   

While Curry’s fandom in the east was growing, back in Kansas, his efforts suffered harsh criticism for the unvarnished portrayal of the region – warts and all. One of Curry’s most known and controversial work is a mural in the Kansas State House in Topeka, Tragic Prelude, part of a project commissioned by the Kansas Mural Commission. Curry was promoted by a prominent newspaper editor and leader of the Progressive movement, William Allen White, as the native son who should represent all that was good and great in the State of Kansas in a series of public murals. Unfortunately, Curry’s portrayal of the murderous abolitionist, John Brown, Civil War dead, tornadoes, prairie fires, soil erosion, and religious fanatics did not go over well with the project committee. Curry’s insistence on getting into his pictures “the iron that is in Kansas people, not a soft, soppy presentation” offended those who felt that only the positives of Kansas life should be included in the murals. The lawmakers were so incensed by what they perceived as a negative portrayal of their state that they threw up smokescreens attempting to halt the project, quibbling over details in the paintings like the wrong shade of red of the bull’s hide, the curl in the pig’s tail that curved in the wrong direction, and the scandalous knee-high length of the dress worn by a quintessential Kansas mother. Curry’s State House murals did have some vocal defenders. F. H. Roberts, ninety-year-old editor of the Oskaloosa Independent, said, “They give a splendid portrayal of Kansas history. Kansas history has been violent and punctuated with bloodshed and cyclones.” And Roy L. Matson, editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, said, “I have stood, half a dozen times, before Curry’s John Brown and looked at it half an hour at a time . . . I have learned more history and more love of country in one of those half hours than from all the dog-eared texts of my tender years.” 

The committee eventually passed a resolution that prevented Curry from finishing the project as intended. Curry, angry over the scandal, never signed the panels that he did complete. They were not installed until after his death. His second wife, Kathleen, attributed his premature death from a heart attack at 49 to the stress and disappointment of this disputed project. The sketches and plans for the murals were purchased by the State of Kansas in 1992, almost 50 years after Curry’s death, when an apology was issued for the legislature’s poor treatment of the artist. 

John Curry was returned to Kansas to be buried. His childhood home is preserved and now sits among other historic structures in Old Jefferson Town in Oskaloosa, Kansas.  

Artist Curry did much to dignify the culture and society of rural America. He saw the important place of good painting and good literature and good music in everyday life. By his feeling for reality and life and movement, he helped bring these fine things more sharply into our consciousness. His work displays a wide range of subjects. But everything he did reflects the faith, hope, and striving of the American mind and soul. 

 – Chris L. Christensen former dean of the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture 

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