Friday, December 2, 2011


John Steuart Curry was born on a farm just outside of Dunavant, Kansas. Early in his youth he developed an attachment and respect for farm animals as well as an understanding of how weather conditions can affect farm life, both for humans and animals alike. At the age of nineteen he began to study at various art centers, including the Kansas City Art Institute, 1916, the Art Institute of Chicago, 1916-18, and Geneva College, New York, 1918-19. In 1926, he spent a year in Paris, where he became acquainted with the works of the old masters, especially Peter Paul Rubens, Gustave Courbet and Honore Daumier. Soon after his return to the United States he settled in New York City, taught at the Art Students League and Cooper Union, and for a brief time traveled with the Ringling Brothers Circus. Throughout his life he remained closely associated with the Midwest and made frequent visits to his family and friends in Kansas. Indeed, the bulk of his painting is closely associated with Kansas farm life where, in the natural setting, he found action and excitement and often terror and disaster.
Curry's painting, Sanctuary, was inspired by a disastrous flood of the Kaw River in 1929 near Lawrence, Kansas. Serious damage was widespread, and losses were enormous. Entire farms were inundated, homes were swept away, and farm animals were drowned. Curry witnessed the effects of this tragedy, which apparently left an indelible impression on his mind. Four years later in 1933, and many times thereafter, he expressed his compassion in compositions consisting of a small island of high dry land, standing out in the midst of high waters.

Curry produced numerous versions of this same motif, including pencil and pen sketches, watercolors, and lithographs, almost down to the time of his death. These compositions were titled Sanctuary, for they portrayed the site where a group of farm animals, including a mule, a mare, three cows, and two hogs, had found refuge from a flood. Amusingly, Curry also included a family of drenched skunks, trailing along the edge of a log from the waters onto dry land. The Butler institute's Sanctuary is an undated but finished watercolor, possibly executed about 1936.

In terms of loss and survival, closely associated with this composition are two matters that deserve mention. First, as we have already seen, the composition reflects the widespread concern over the disasters of major flooding. Not only in Kansas was there fear of a possible repetition of the 1929 Kaw River flood, but there were also clear recollections nationally of the Mississippi River flood of 1927, which had resulted in an estimated loss of $270 million and which Herbert C. Hoover, then United States Secretary of Commerce, had called ". . . the greatest peacetime disaster that the United States has ever known." Those concerns inevitably found symbolic expression in another composition by Curry, who interpreted tragic loss and the human urge toward survival in terms of the Biblical story of Noah and the Ark. Curry, recalling the 1927 Mississippi flood, produced a lithograph titled Mississippi Noah (1932), as well as a tempera painting of essentially the same composition titled Mississippi (1935, St. Louis Art Museum). Both of these depict an African-American family who have taken refuge atop a wooden shack, which appears to be floating down the flooding river. Conceptually, these two works make the same essential statement as the various works titled Sanctuary.
Second, the earliest version of Sanctuary was drawn in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, when, in broadest terms, the notion of relief and sanctuary was of utmost concern through out the nation. And in the Midwest, sanctuary was often identified with the farm and the capability of the farm to produce food, both grain and animals, and thus ensure human sustenance, a realization widely voiced by the Regionalists and particularly by Grant Wood and his close associate John Steuart Curry.
It is also noteworthy how an artwork such as Sanctuary so fully mirrors the social and economic characteristics of its time, and how powerful the image was to Curry for him to have repeated it so often throughout his life.


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