John Steuart Curry was among the first distinguished painters of the Twentieth century to convey a strong impression of America west of the Hudson River. Like the other leading regionalist artists of the 1920's and 1930's, Grant Wood (1891-1942) and Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Curry turned to his native environment for inspiration and sought to express the truth according to his individual understanding of it.
Born on a farm in Dunavant, Kansas, pictured in The Curry Farm, on November 14, 1897, Curry was the oldest of five children. His parents were descendants of Scotch Presbyterians and raised their children with strong religious convictions and a firm belief in the virtues of hard work. From an early age, Curry's ambition was to be an artist and his interest was encouraged with art lessons from a neighbor. After leaving high school in his junior year, Curry enrolled in the Kansas Art Institute where he remained for one month. A short stint working for the Missouri Pacific Railroad provided Curry with the funds to move to Chicago in October of 1916 and enter the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. There he studied with Edward J. Timmons and John W. Norton. After completing his studies at the Institute, Curry enrolled in Geneva College in Pennsylvania for one year. In 1919 he left college and moved to Leonia, New Jersey, where he began work as a free-lance illustrator, largely under the influence of Harvey T. Dunn (1884-1952). In 1923, Curry moved to Westport, Connecticut where, though he continued to work as an illustrator, he began to try to produce paintings of museum quality. He sent his first painting to the National Academy of Design in 1924.
Determined to pursue his interest in fine art, Curry traveled to Paris in 1926 where he studied for a year with Russian academician, Basil Schoukhaieff. In Paris, Curry made frequent trips to the Louvre to learn from the great painters of the past and he was consequently exposed to the modern painting of Matisse and Picasso. But he returned to Westport in 1927 convinced that it was necessary for him to paint those subjects that he knew intimately. Curry believed that a sincere and lasting value was to be found in the experienced realities of the basic farm existence from his childhood: the religion, the physical activities, and the natural sensations of the rural community. This imagery was an immediate way for Curry to maintain ties to the past, and although between 1919 and 1936 Curry lived for the most part in New York, he began to earn his reputation as a Regionalist by drawing inspiration from the Midwest.
Upon his return to his Connecticut studio, Curry painted his first major painting, Baptism in Kansas, finished in the summer of 1928. The painting was exhibited that year at the Corcoran Gallery of Art's Biennial in Washington, D.C. In 1930, Curry had his first one-man show at the Whitney Studio Galleries in New York. This exhibition brought him recognition, and within two years, both the Whitney Museum of American Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art had purchased paintings from him (Baptism in Kansas, and Spring Shower, respectively).
A long fascination with the circus, and an urge to explore new subject matter led Curry to join up with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in April 1932. This resulted in a remarkable series of sketches and paintings humans and animals in action. "The circus is one of the most colorful phases of the American scene," he told a reporter in 1933. "I am immensely drawn by the excitement and movement." The circus subjects possess the qualities that characterize much of Curry's art - dramatic action, activated space, and sculptural articulation. These works also reveal a theme that was maintained throughout his work, the historical struggle of man and nature. Following the circus tour, Curry began to teach at Cooper Union (1932-1934) and at the Art Students League (1932-1936).
During the 1930s, Curry painted a number of important murals. Under local sponsorship, he painted murals for two public schools in Westport and Norwalk, Connecticut. In June of 1935 he was chosen by the Federal Art Project to paint a mural for the U. S. Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C. Other projects included murals for the Kansas State Capitol Building, Topeka, Kansas; College of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin, Law School Library at the University of Wisconsin, and the First National Bank in Madison, Wisconsin.
In 1936, Curry became the first artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin. The position permitted him a great deal of freedom, and he produced an impressive body of work, including Sketching, Wisconsin, while maintaining active participation in the national exhibitions, where he won many prestigious awards. Curry maintained his post as artist-in-residence up to his death on August 29, 1946 in Madison, Wisconsin.
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