Photos courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society
Courtesy of The Kansas Historical Society
In 1937 artist John Steuart Curry was asked to return to Kansas to cover the interior walls of the Topeka capitol with scenes from the state’s history. The offer followed a statewide newspaper campaign to bring Kansas’ most accomplished artist back to his home state. The campaign was initiated by popular Kansas newspaper men such as Jack Harris of the Hutchinson News, Paul Jones of the Lyons Daily News, and even William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette. Just four years later, though, legislators passed a resolution stopping Curry from completing his work. That year Curry left his home state never to return, leaving the finished murals unsigned.
John Steuart Curry was born on Nov. 14, 1897, in the small northeastern Kansas town of Dunavant. The eldest of five children in a farming family, his inclination toward art began at a young age. Curry’s biographer and friend, Lawrence E. Schmeckebier, once wrote that as a youth on his father’s farm Curry was interested in drawing everything:
“. . . horses and fighting animals, railroad engines and trains, pictures of battles from the Revolutionary War, hosts of everyday things about him. He kept a scrapbook filled with newspaper and magazine clippings of cowboy and Indian scenes, illustrations by such westerners as Remington and Dunton, also hundreds of his own pencil sketches of guns and revolvers.”
After high school, Curry went on to study art in Kansas City, Chicago, New York, and Paris. By 1921, he had worked as an illustrator for such popular magazines as Boys Life, St. Nicholas, and The Saturday Evening Post.
Though Curry worked mainly at the Westport art colony in Connecticut, the subject of his works was Midwestern.
In 1928, Curry finally received national fame with the purchase of his painting “Baptism in Kansas” by the wealthy patron and New York art museum owner Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.
Curry was then introduced to two other artists who shared his love for the Midwest, Grant Wood of Iowa and Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. These three artists would grow to become lifelong friends and by the 1930s would establish a new style of art in the U.S. that came to be known as Regionalism.
Products of their early defining work remain with us today as major icons of American art. Curry’s Baptism in Kansas in 1928, Benton’s Boomtown in 1928, and especially Wood’s American Gothic in 1930, all seem to encapture the unique experience of American rural life.
These Regionalists attempted to create a distinct style of art that promoted idealism and rejected the duplication of popular European trends. In 1946 Thomas Hart Benton wrote, “We agreed that unless American Art came back to dealing with things about which American artists knew something it would accomplish nothing.” They painted images promoting a new American identity that included subjects of family, religion, and nature.
The growth of the Regionalist art movement can best be understood in the context of the rising nationalism and isolationism that occurred in the U.S. between the two world wars.
Separation from European trends and a focus on American identity were concepts permeating American culture throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Through the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project, the federal government commissioned Regionalist artists to complete murals on public buildings that promoted the Protestant work ethic and family values.
In 1937, Curry was contacted by a group of newspaper editors to take on the task of painting the statehouse murals in Topeka. Curry had hoped to return to his home state since leaving to pursue artistic training, but his work had not been accepted enthusiastically in Kansas for most of his professional career. Though his most notable works depicted Kansas themes and landscapes, Curry’s art has only recently come to be appreciated by residents of his home state.
Harsh Public Reaction
The first exposure of the Kansas public to Curry’s artwork came in 1930-31, when a traveling exhibition of his paintings was sent from New York to the Mulvane Museum in Topeka. The showing produced harsh reactions from Kansas viewers and critics. Many claimed that Curry focused only on the negative aspects of Kansas life. They labeled the paintings The Tornado, Holy Rollers, and Manhunt as depicting miserable weather, religious fanaticism, and lynch mobs.
Curry would later hear these arguments repeated in 1941 as he finished Tragic Prelude and Kansas Pastoral, murals adorning the east and west second-floor corridors of the capital building. Arguments over Kansas capitol artwork were nothing new; tensions flared between Curry and the public over his use of fanatical abolitionist John Brown as a focal point. Other points of controversy were the inaccuracy of a bull’s stance and a too-short woman’s skirt.
After finishing the main panels in the corridors in 1940, Curry planned to begin work on rotunda murals as soon as a set of marble panels were removed to make room. The subject for these panels was to be the dangers of poor soil management. Kansas farmers balked at such an image housed in their Capitol. Opposition to Curry’s work climaxed when the Kansas Council of Women protested the removal of the marble and issued the following statement:
“The murals do not portray the true Kansas. Rather than revealing a law-abiding progressive state, the artist has emphasized the freaks in its history – the tornadoes, and John Brown, who did not follow legal procedure.”
Under pressure from the public, the Kansas Legislature passed a resolution demanding that the marble panels not be removed and thus put an end to Curry’s rotunda murals. Angered by the continual tension with the public and rejection by his home state, the artist left Kansas. On August 29, 1946, Curry died of a heart attack at the age of 48, having never signed his famous statehouse murals.
In 1992, 51 years after the resolution defeated the murals’ completion, Senate Resolution No. 1809 officially recognized the legislature’s poor treatment of Kansas’ most respected artist.
The Kansas Museum of History collections include 19 of Curry’s statehouse studies. Crayon studies are small preliminary sketches in preparation for completing a full-sized mural.
For more information on Curry’s career and images of the statehouse murals, check out Curry’s Kansas, PBS’ Online Focus.