Curry, John Steuart (1897-1946)
John Steuart Curry and James Henry Daugherty were two artists in the Connecticut Federal Arts Project who were nationally and internationally celebrated. Curry was one of the three top regionalist artists in the country, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton being the two others. He was born on November 14, 1897, near Dunavant, Kansas. He took his first art lessons at the age of 12. He went on to attend three years of art school, starting at the Kansas City Art Institute and transferring to the Art Institute of Chicago and then to Geneva College in Pennsylvania. He was soon working as a commercial artist, creating illustrations for the publications Country Gentleman, Boy’s Life, and the Saturday Evening Post. He married Clara Derrick in 1923 and the following year bought a studio in Westport, Connecticut.
Curry soon grew tired of commercial illustration and decided to return to school for further training in the fine arts. In 1926 he raised funds and moved to Paris to attend the Russian Academy Art School. After a year of study in Paris, he returned to the United States where he studied at the Art Students League in New York City. He returned to Westport in 1928. That same year his painting, Baptism in Kansas, was exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. to considerable acclaim. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney bought the work for her museum and paid him a stipend of 50 dollars a week for two years.
In 1932 his wife died, and he relocated from his secluded Westport studio to a studio in New York City. In the city he taught at the Cooper Union and the Art Students League. Around this same time Curry toured New England painting studies of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. His reputation continued to grow, and he was soon considered one of the leaders in the art movement called “regionalism.” His artwork was bought and exhibited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum, University of Nebraska, and the St. Louis Museum.
In 1934 Curry wed Kathleen Shepard, and the couple returned to Westport. He was commissioned to create a double mural, Comedy and Tragedy, for Westport High School. Time Magazine described the whimsical mural as follows:
“In Comedy (and Tragedy) Artist Curry has included himself and his wife, has gaily jumbled Charlie Chaplin on roller skates, Mickey Mouse, Mutt, Jeff, Shakespeare’s Bottom, Will Rogers, Popeye the Sailor. In Tragedy Uncle Tom prays by the bedside of Little Eva, Hamlet sulks, Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Eugene O’Neill scowl, Aerialist Lillian Leitzel drops from her circus partner’s arms to death.”
Curry was also selected to paint murals for the Department of Justice and the Department of Interior buildings in Washington, D.C. He began work for the WPA Federal Arts Project in January of 1936 painting two murals for the new Norwalk High School in Connecticut: Ancient Industries of Norwalk andHat Industry. He expressed his admiration of the WPA saying, “the present administration’s program of sponsoring painting, sculpture, music, and drama is of tremendous importance to the American art of the present and of the future.”
At the end of 1936 he left the project to become the Artist in Residence at the College of Agriculture in the University of Wisconsin, a job he would hold until the end of his life. He was paid $4,000 a year and given a studio on campus. His painting Wisconsin Landscape, which he painted while at the University of Wisconsin, won the first prize at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Artists for Victory” exhibition in 1942.
In 1943 Curry was commissioned to paint ten murals for the Capitol Building in Topeka, Kansas. Though this commission may have been the basis of his greatest work, it resulted in a sharp disagreement with many in Kansas. The subject matter of his mural, The Tragic Prelude, was extremely dark and brooding. At the center of the mural stands John Brown, the controversial abolitionist. To either side of him stand Union and Confederate troops, some living and some dead. Behind him a prairie fire rages as a tornado tears through the sky. Curry was extremely proud of this mural, going so far as to say, “In the panel of John Brown, I have accomplished the greatest painting I have yet done.” However, the Kansas Legislative Committee overseeing the execution of the murals disagreed finding Curry’s dark depiction of Kansas’ past unacceptable. There was also a strong public outcry against the paintings. The Kansas Council of Women felt that the people in the mural looked more like “freaks than true law-abiding people of Kansas.” The Kansas Livestock Association was similarly displeased: the hide of the bull in the mural was far too red, and the pig’s tail curled the wrong way. The Kansas Legislature passed a resolution that prevented Curry from finishing the mural. As a result, he refused to sign the sections of the mural he had completed.
Curry was deeply affected by the negative reactions towards his Kansas murals. For the final years of his life he rarely painted, instead focusing on book illustrations and lithographs. On August 29, 1946, he died of a heart attack in Madison, Wisconsin. His wife was convinced that the controversy surrounding his John Brown mural had killed him. In 1992 the State of Kansas bought all of the original drawings related to the mural and offered an official apology for their treatment of Curry. Curry’s art continues to be popular among museums and individual collectors.
Sources: WPA Allocation Card; AskART; Laurence E. Schmeckebier, John Stuart Curry’s Pageant of America (New York, 1943); “U.S. Scene,” Time Magazine, December 24, 1934; Percy Boswell, Jr., Modern American Painting (New York, 1940), pp. 116-117; www.metmuseum.org ; News Hour with Jim Lehrer: August 13, 1998; Modern American Painting (1940); David Detmer, “Curry, John Steuart,” American National Biography (1999), pp.878-879; Dorothy and John Tarrant, A Community of Artists; Wilton-Westport, 1900-1985, pp. 83-86; “Painter Most Remembered for Image of John Brown,” The Topeka Capital-Journal: February 16, 2003; “Curry, Noted Artist, Dies In Wisconsin,” Hartford Courant, August 30, 1946; “The Permanent Collection [John Steuart Curry],” Sioux City Art Center “Collective Images: The Sketchbooks of John Steuart Curry,” exhibition at the Worcester [MA] Art Museum in 2002; “Curry, John Steuart,” list of manuscripts of the John Steuart and Curry Family Papers at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; The following are found in the New York Times and were selected for their assessment of Curry’s work and/or career: “Exhibition At Silvermine [Norwalk, CT],” September 15, 1929; Edward Alden Jewell, “Our Modern Museums,” February 16, 1930; “Kansas Has Found Her Homer,” December 7, 1930; Edward Alden Jewell, “Events in the [Art] Colonies,” June 28, 1931; “Story of Kansas Countryside,” October 13, 1930; Elisabeth Luther Cary, “Restoring the Balance,” December 13, 1931; Edward Alden Jewell, “Art,” October 20, 1933; “Mrs. Kathleen Shepherd Wed,” June 8, 1934; Edward Alden Jewell, “Curry Presents Kansas Pictures,” January 23, 1935; “To Show Lynching Art,” February 13, 1935; “Curry’s ‘Tornado’ Sold To Museum,” June 5, 1935; Elisabeth Luther Cary, “Two Artists’ Drawings,” September 22, 1935; “Lectures,” January 26, 1939; Edward Alden Jewell, “Mural Art,” August 30, 1936; “Curry Is Named ‘Artist In Residence’; Wisconsin Acts to Aid ‘Rural Culture,’” September 20, 1936; “Mural For Justice Department,” Photo stand-alone, 2, March 22, 1937; “Realm of Art: Murals and Architectural Sculpture,” May 9, 1937; “Curry’s Sketches of Murals for Kansas Are Photographed for Exhibition Here,” November 27, 1937; Edward Alden Jewell, “John S. Curry Art Is Put On Display,” January 17, 1938; “Regional Displays for; Art Open Today,” October 12, 1938; “30 Art Exhibitions Here This Week,” January 10, 1938; Edward Alden Jewell, “Murals: A Survey of Recent Washington Work,” December 21, 1941; “Record Art Show Has $52,000 Prizes,” December 8, 1942; “Elected By Academy,” April 30, 1943; “John S. Curry Dies; Mural Painter, 48,” August 30, 1946; “John Steuart Curry,” August 31, 1946; “500 at Curry Burial Service,” September 2, 1946; Hal Borland, “Curry’s America: Strong, Bold, Lush,” March 23, 1947; “Galleries Show Cezanne, Curry,” March 24, 1947; Edward Alden Jewell, “John Curry’s Art Shown At Gallery,” March 25, 1947; Edward Alden Jewell, “Cezanne Tops List,” March 30, 1947; John Canaday, “Art: Precisionist View,” January 26, 1961; Hilton Kramer, “Revising the Art History of the Nineteen-Thirties,” October 20, 1968; “Grace Glueck. “Art and Alphabet Soup,” February 9, 1969; John Canaday, “John Steuart Curry: Burial in Kansas,” November 1, 1969; John Canaday, “Hold On There Just a Minutes: Won’t You? I Didn’t Say-,” November 29, 1970; James R. Mellow, “The American Scene,” December 1, 1974; Hilton Kramer, “Art: Revisionism Mines Historical Lode,” July 13, 1977; Peter Schjeldahl, “The Morris Museum Mounts A Solid Exhibition of ‘Realism,’ ” April 20, 1980; Hilton Kramer, “Art: Show at Whitney Stars the Human Figure,” June 7, 1980; William Zimmer, “Don’t Expect Happy Clowns In This Show of Circus Art,” November 25, 2001.
Works of Art Listed in CT Archives’ database from John Curry:
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