John Steuart Curry and American Regionalism
John Steuart Curry stared into the heartland of America and painted what he saw. In the face of accelerating centralisation, Curry and a few other Midwestern artists like Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood remained proudly Regionalist.
Curry was born in 1897 to a religious family in rural Kansas. He worked on the farm as a youth, before training at the Kansas Art Institute and the Art Institute of Chicago. His career flourished in the 1920s and 1930s when the Great Depression hit hard, and his scenes of rural life, including religion, tornadoes, and the working poor, struck a chord with a disenchanted American population. Curry was amongst the artists commissioned by the New Deal Works Progress Administration to create large-scale public art across the country. Others included Diego Rivera, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock.
To the more urbane Eastern crowd, Curry’s romantic paintings seemed to reveal a side of America that was fast disappearing. Critics, while often positive, tended to sentimentalize his subject matter or misinterpret the stereotypical rural scenes as satire. The almost cartoonish intensity of his paintings created an exaggerated reality, but it was this style that so evocatively captured such grand themes as Man versus Nature, Religion, and economic turmoil. Curry had merely been remembering scenes from his youth and painted what he saw as honest depictions of his fondly recalled Kansas upbringing. His reaction to the initial popularity was something akin to bewilderment, as he had made no attempt to impose intellectual readings on his paintings. Meanwhile, in his home state, the reaction from some other Kansans was embarrassment at what they perceived as negative representations of a backwards state.
In the 1990s there was a surge of interest in Regionalist painters and John Steuart Curry, and his works were rewarded with a new phase of appreciation. As the world continues to modernise and centralise, his paintings of the open prairie seem more like a lost vision of Americana than ever before.