One of the most remarkable aspects of renaissance religious paintings by John Stuart Curry (1897-1946) is that it depicted life in the natural world and expressed the practice of fanatic religious sects.
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Having been born and raised in Kansas, his exotic locale was important for artistic work as depicted in his memorable paintings. It also provided inspiration for his art as well as a powerful drive for high and mundane artistic elements.
Pinto et al describe Curry’s artistic works in his paintings of Baptism in Kansas and the Tornado as some of the most amazing and influential pieces of art during the renaissance era. Curry astonishingly used colors in his paintings to bring out the intensity and reality of the circumstance in Kansas.1
In agreement, Howe indicates that his use of colors was very instrumental in developing open air religious activities and impending natural disasters.2
This paper deduces that Baptism in Kansas was one of the most defining paintings by Curry that greatly displayed his extensive and substantial abilities since it illuminated and described his paintings by articulating his view on the practice of open air baptism.
The painting describes the practice of open air baptism by fanatic religious sects. His painting has a unique compositional layout that most representations of well known baptism lack.
Agreeably, his artistic aesthetic as described later in the paper is greatly inspired by his experience (what he saw) and represents unique contribution to the study.
Curry’s painting attempted to relate real life experiences with an abstract world of artistic work. According to Pinto et al, his piece of artistic work elicited greater understanding and was conceived as well as treated with a greater reverence.3
Today, the painting Baptism in Kansas stands out as one of the works that express a deep observance of religious fundamentalism. Pinto et al describe the painting as a complex one that is expresses a spectrum of emotions like submission, and is filled with religious practice carried out during the renaissance.4
It is important to note that while some observers regard the painting as curiously ambivalent and satirical of religious practice of renaissance, others characterizes the practice as reflective of early Christian rituals which is expressed in complex interaction of colors showing dark shadows and brightly reflective areas.
Julia concurs with Pinto et al’s view of the painting and observes that the complex communication of colors create vivid contrasts which augment the sense of quiet, peaceful and heavenly atmosphere.5
Although the above piece of painting was eminent as one of Curry’s works, Tornado is another painting by Curry which depicts an approaching tornado. The painting which was unveiled in 1929 shows a farmer struggling to shelter his family and pets from an approaching whirlwind.
The struggle and tolerance which the family goes through is depicted through images of societal workforce. Miller argues that the unique style of painting on The Tornado shows that Curry did not depend on the subtle and painstaking modulation of colors.6
Miller hinges this argument on the view that Curry used energized forms and free brush work, a consideration that shows a break-away from the tradition of painting. Curry’s painting applies traces of shocking, brilliant and pure color pigment.
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A person can clearly observe primary colors like the blue and the powerful blacks and grey shadows which appear in sharp notes. In agreement, Howe indicates that the effects in the picture are electrifying and vivid especially when observed against broad gray and dark areas.7
He concludes that this style faultlessly corresponds with the event and shows how the tornado is advancing towards the family as depictive of a massive wind partially hidden by the distance and a heavy dark cloud hanging in the sky.8
However, it is imperative to point out that in this picture; Curry depicts the struggle among the family members to reach safety with great clarity. Cox-Rearick points out that these figures play a pivotal role of representing the intensity of the coming calamity.
Besides, Cox-Rearick describes the piece of art The Tornado and especially the approaching whirlwind as a picture that has a touch of classical display. Of utmost importance to analysts in the picture is the idea behind Curry’s expression of intensity of the situation.
Renaissance analysts posit that although it is in the picture, the intensity indicates an embodiment of an idea. The tornado appears to be approaching with greater force enough to suck up everything, pull down the houses and everything within the farm.
Curry appears to be aware of the tornado and its effects, a factor that is pegged on the experience in Kansas where tornados frequently occur.
John Steuart Curry career lasted for a period of about twenty years beginning from the time when he displayed his artwork in New York at the National Academy of Design. His first exhibition took place in 1924.
For a period of two decades until in 1946 when he died in Madison, Curry managed to stir up the field of painting with his attractive pieces of art. As a matter of fact, the foundation of American artwork was shaken during the two decades.
It is imperative to note that these were also the years when the country was reeling back from the effects of the Great Depression in addition to onset of the Second World War.
As a matter of fact, the social, political and economic structures of American life were heavily reshaped during this period of time. In addition, the moral and spiritual grounding of mankind was greatly challenged.9
Curry was indeed an artist who defied all odds that were typical of these times bearing in mind that these were years of upheavals that promised no peace in the land in addition to the fact that he originated from the Middle West.
He struggled a lot to find deeper and underlying meaning of religion throughout his childhood life after being born in a rural setting where information on pertinent issues on religion were perhaps missing.
He attempted to explore various challenges of contemporary life in various areas of personal interest that elicited a lot of feeling in all his paintings later in life.
For instance, his main areas of interest in terms of religion included religious fanaticism, war, environmental destruction, and bigotry. In all of these confrontations, he openly described the underlying dangers of self righteousness and also demonstrated how the latter was the main driving force behind human suffering that was prevalent during that time.
Even as he was growing and developing as a polished and well renowned painter, there were myriads of international debates that were going on that directly affected his art work. For instance, there was continual clamor on the most suitable language to use in all forms of contemporary art.
In some cases, there were those who proposed the use of abstract forms of language while others wielded support for realism.10 Curry’s main theme in his various pieces of paintings largely depicted how mankind related with the environment either through social life, political arrangements or belief systems.
In addition, his paintings contained an important message on the general relationship between men and women. Needless to say, his rural life must have elicited a lot of feelings and the various interconnectedness he portrayed in his paintings.
This claim can be supported by the fact that he did not just focus on issues within the American Middle West. The socio-political and economic life of communities living in rural Kansas was significantly represented in the various forms of his paintings.
The painter gave form to matters that were dearly evident and affecting both the overall human experiences and specifically that of his generation. In any case, the rural Midwestern landscape was elevated to a different discourse altogether especially in regards to both spirituality and social way of life.
In spite of the negative prevailing circumstances that were typical during his years in painting, it can be argued out that his art was able to transcend various regions across the world.
The impacts left behind by his ideas presented in art form were indeed quite consequential both in terms of place and time.11
Nonetheless, it is perhaps worthy to discuss the epitome of his painting as depicted in the Baptism in Kansas. This piece of painting appeared in the minds of audience as a form of deep story-telling session and indeed espoused him as a talented storyteller.
The 1928 painting exposed the essence of religious fundamentalism and the increasing national passion towards it, the deep experience of the painter as well as his inner human feelings towards humanity.
He managed to develop a profound subject upon which his painting would be based. Hence, a religious rite would serve the most important title for this pairing of the decade.
It is evident that one of his childhood recollections was based on baptism when he was growing up in rural Kansas. In addition, the manner in which baptism was carried out during his life was instrumental in the form of this painting.
As a matter of fact, the painting depicts the relevance of baptism by submission as a spiritual rite in a certain religion. Moreover, this was the most appropriate time for Curry to recollect his childhood experiences especially at the time when he was at the Paris Academy.12
This was a fundamental test in terms of painting when relating very closely with his Russian instructor.13 In terms of narration and story-telling skills, he appeared in one of the renowned magazines in an actual story-telling experience on the form of his painting.
As a result, a chord was struck due the popularity of this painting. Hence, the intellectuals from the East Coast as well as the country’s urban population were merged in terms of common feelings and likes for his 1928 painting.
In other words, his place of origin did not affect the influence brought about by his paintings.
Curry spent his initial years in career as a painter in Connecticut at the colony of Westport. He had a lot of vantage points while operating in this place. For instance, this location formed one of his most formidable descriptions of social landscapes that shaped the nature of his paintings.
However, this was not the only place that laid a firm foundation for Curry since Midwest was also instrumental towards his artistic growth and development.
A marginal group which he encountered when he was paying a trip to Kansas was a major experience that also influenced the features of his painting.14
Other groups that influenced the creation of his painting included the Barnum & Bailey Circus as well as the Ringling Brothers. The two groups are believed to have been key architects who heavily influenced the genre of painting in various ways.15
In any case, the American scene art show has recognized them as important elements that shaped indigenous art of work such as paintings although they mainly appeared as behind the scenes effects that did not feature a lot in the actual paintings of Curry.
The heroic survival and pathetic lives of the Kansas people were vividly depicted by Curry’s painting. The latter also explained the rationale why the painter opted to feature the relevance of baptism as a religious ritual towards mankind that seeks some form of spiritual cleansing for mankind.
Intense countrywide reflection took place from the mid 1930s to early 1940s. This deep reflection was mainly occasioned by the devastating effects of the Great Depression.
Moreover, the incessant threats of the oncoming upheavals that was to cause instability throughout the world in a form of World War II. Even through the government of the day tried to provide some kind of assurance that all would be well, a face of despair and hopelessness was evident in the lives of Kansas people.
It is definite that the American art scene came in handy to provide the much needed moral and psychological support needed at this time. Hence, the public mural art field such as paintings were highly welcomed and appreciated as well.
It was against this backdrop that Curry’s painting on the Baptism of Kansas elicited deeper spiritual meaning in terms of the meaning of God who created everything on earth and His express purpose towards mankind.
People were ready to receive any kind of promising redemption that would rescue them from the hard social, political and economic times they were facing.
If, indeed, the Baptism of Kansas brought meaning and a sense of belonging in life, then the society was ready to embrace even the unseen spiritual effects of baptism by being immersed in water.16
There was very minimal interest for his paintings among the local Kansas population in spite of his popularity throughout the country. According to Curry, the images he created were meant to bring out the intrinsic impression of a location where he had been brought up.17
However, the local native community at Kansas perceived his paintings as mere portrayal of the unpleasant features of Kansas. According to most of them, these images had no meaning at all since they were just making fun of their state of residence.
The inclusivity of baptisms carried out in outdoor locations in Kansas was largely seen as narration of negative aspects of a state coupled with damaging information that were misleading and untrue to a large extent.
The Kansas population felt that they were being embarrassed by Curry’s paintings with myriads of stereotype ideas about Kansas depicted in Curry’s works of art.
The need for highlighting the pastoral serenity of Kansas was the key driving force of Curry. Nonetheless, shortly after this piece of art was exhibited in New York galleries museum centre, sharp criticism from his folks in Kansas followed.
They claimed that they were being humiliated by the impressions created by Curry. Although several negative sentiments were received as a result of Curry’s stereotypic paintings, it did not lead to elimination of his paintings from the gallery since the chamber of commerce was greatly interested in such pieces of work that elicited deep-sited reactions.18
In any case, it was noted that Curry’s work thrilled the New York residents bearing in mind that they were already exhausted by massive level of commercial activities that were surrounding their lives on a daily basis and as such, they needed something unique that would break the monotony.
It is vital to note that it took several decades down the line before his paintings could be universally accepted by the native Kansas people.
A careful review of history reveals that the first time Curry’s paintings were acknowledged in Kansas was way back in the early 1990s when some of his paintings were bought by Statehouse.19
To sum up, the discussion has clearly indicated that the period of romanticism was characterized by flourishing intellectual movement in Europe in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Many artists, composers, writers and philosophers responded to the complexity of that age with pieces of art showing the implications of the period.
Besides, in the analysis, it is clear that the romantic thought during this time reflected organic conception of interconnections, the society and an individual’s life.
Budick, Ariella. “All struggling artists welcome.”Financial Times (London), May 18, 2011.
Cox-Rearick, Janet. “Imagining the Renaissance: The Nineteenth-Century Cult of Francois I as Patron of Art.” Renaissance Quarterly 50, no. 1 (1997): 207-250.
Dennis, James. Renegade Regionalists: The Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.
Howe, Eunice. “Reviews “Spalliera” Paintings of Renaissance Tuscany: Fables of Poets for Patrician Homes by Anne B. Barriault.” Renaissance Quarterly 49, no. 2 (1996): 446- 447.
Julia, Miller. “The Panel Paintings of Masolino and Masaccio: The Role of Technique.” Renaissance Quarterly 57, no. 2 (2004): 590-591.
Kendall, Sue. Rethinking Regionalism: John Steuart Curry and the Kansas Mural Controversy. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986.
Kennedy, Roger and David Larkin. When art worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy. New York: Rizzoli, 2009.
Pinto, Paulo et al. “Psychophysical Estimation of the Best Illumination for Appreciation of Renaissance Paintings.” Visual Neuroscience 23, no. 3-4 (2006): 669-674.
Russell, Clement. “John Steuart Curry: Inventing the Middle West.” Library Journal 123, no. 9 (1998): 82-86.
Sheehan, Nancy. “Curry sketchbooks: Worcester Art Museum acquisition offers insights into an artist’s work.”Telegram & Gazette 3 no.2 (2002): 1-4.
Wunderlich, Mongerson. John Steuart Curry: Rural America. New York: ACA Galleries, 1991.
1 Paulo Pinto et al, “Psychophysical Estimation of the Best Illumination for Appreciation of Renaissance Paintings.” Visual Neuroscience 23, no. 3-4 (2006): 669.
2 Eunice Howe, “Reviews — “Spalliera” Paintings of Renaissance Tuscany: Fables of Poets for Patrician Homes by Anne B. Barriault.” Renaissance Quarterly 49, no. 2 (1996): 446.
3 Pinto et al., 669
5 Miller Julia, “The Panel Paintings of Masolino and Masaccio: The Role of Technique.” Renaissance Quarterly 57, no. 2 (2004): 590
7 Howe pp. 446.
8 Janet Cox-Rearick, “Imagining the Renaissance: The Nineteenth-Century Cult of Francois I as Patron of Art.” Renaissance Quarterly 50, no. 1 (1997): 207-250.
9 Roger Kennedy and Larkin David, When art worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy. (New York: Rizzoli, 2009), 67.
10 Roger Kennedy and Larkin David, When art worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy. (New York: Rizzoli, 2009), 91.
11 Nancy Sheehan, “Curry sketchbooks: Worcester Art Museum acquisition offers insights into an artist’s work.”Telegram & Gazette 3 no.2 (2002), 3.
12 James Dennis, Renegade Regionalists: The Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry. (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 108.
13 Sue Kendall, Rethinking Regionalism: John Steuart Curry and the Kansas Mural Controversy. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986), 63.
14 Sue Kendall, Rethinking Regionalism: John Steuart Curry and the Kansas Mural Controversy. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986), 106.
15 Ariella Budick, “All struggling artists welcome.”Financial Times (London), May 18, 2011.
17 Mongerson Wunderlich, John Steuart Curry: Rural America. (New York: ACA Galleries, 1991), 86.
18 Ibid, 93.
19 Clement Russell, “John Steuart Curry: Inventing the Middle West.” Library Journal 123, no. 9 (1998): 83.