Thursday, October 29, 2015

Kansas Capitol Mural

John Brown mural at Kansas Capitol
Although the Kansas Capitol was begun in 1866 before Isaac B. Werner arrived to stake his claim and the structure required 37 years to complete, interior details remained to be done even then.  (See "A Kansas Treasure," at 10/15/2015 in the blog archives.)

When my husband and I recently visited the capitol, one of the things I could recall from a much earlier visit was the  mural of John Brown.  This well-known image of the Kansas abolitionist shaped my perception of Brown as a wild-eyed radical, although many in the abolitionist movement regarded him as a hero.

John Steuart Curry, the artist who painted the mural, was born in Dunavant, Kansas in 1897.  He studied in Kansas City, Chicago, and Paris, and the event which brought him attention was when Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney purchased his painting, Baptism in Kansas, in 1928 for her new museum in NYC.

In 1931-32, through the influence of Kansas newspaperman William Allen White (See "What is the Matter?," 9/9/2013 in the blog archives to read more about White.) and Maynard Walker, a Kansas-born art dealer in NYC, an exhibition of Curry's work traveled to Kansas City, Topeka, and Manhattan.  The exhibition introduced Kansans to the work of their native son, and in 1937, with the support of White and artist Grant Wood, Curry was retained to paint the murals in the capitol.  He worked on that commission from 1937-1941 but found himself confronted with criticism.  Some Kansans did not agree with his depiction of John Brown as a hero.  Other criticism related to his depiction of the tornado and his failure to represent the state in a more idealized way.

Source Credit: Don Anderson papers, Smithsonian
His depictions should not have come as a surprise, for he made his reputation painting rural Kansas scenes showing drought, tornadoes, and harsh living conditions.  He was known as a member of the trio of  early 20th century American Regionalists, the other two being Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood.  

The criticism was disheartening to Curry, and in the years prior to his death in 1946 he never recovered from the personal sadness caused by that critical reception by his home state.  It was his intention to depict the courage of self-reliant people surviving through their own hard labor to overcome harsh conditions.  Many of his paintings show his disapproval of racial discrimination and hatred, which may explain why he chose to paint the mural of John Brown.

The Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art
After seeing the exhibition in 1931-32, Kansas State Agricultural College began raising funds to purchase a painting for their collection.  They achieved their goal and purchased Sun Dogs in 1935, becoming the first public institution in Kansas to acquire a work by Curry.  Because his mother had attended the college, Curry reduced the painting's price from $1,200 to $500, and he also donated a water color and four lithographs.  His generosity in reducing the price was very important to the college's ability to raise the funds during those hard depression years.

At the time of the 1996 opening of Kansas State University's Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Mrs. Ruth Ann Wefald and Mr. Don Lambert developed a friendship with Curry's widow, Kathleen Curry, and as the friendship grew, Mrs. Curry decided to donate a large and important collection of her husband's work to the museum.  It would surely have pleased him, after his disappointment over the criticism given his work in the capitol, to know that Kansas State University now proudly houses his collection.

Photo credit:  Larry D. Fenwick

1 comment:

Promote Lindsborg said...

Great story. I didn't know how the mural came to be in the capitol.