Collection Highlight - John Steuart Curry

John Steuart Curry

With flaring eyes and wind-whipped beard, John Steuart Curry's vision of John Brown radiates moral outrage. He is as wild as the blazing prairie fire and whirling funnel cloud pictured behind him. Brown was among numerous Americans who flooded into Kansas in the 1850s, determined to influence whether the territory would enter the United States as a free or slave state. A man of powerful, moral convictions, he did not shrink from violent methods to advance abolitionist aims. He became notorious--but also celebrated--for his participation in the bloody conflict in Kansas and then the raid at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, which helped spark the Civil War.

Curry's print, John Brown, is derived from one of several murals commissioned for the State Capitol in the late 1930s. In the mural, Brown towers over the fratricide of Union and Confederate soldiers, with a Bible in one outstretched arm and a rifle in the other. In the print, a single slave gazes up at the raging abolitionist. Both images include a wagon-line of settlers entering a sunflower-dotted territory that promises both fertile land and devastating storms. Raised on a Kansas farm, Curry often portrayed the conflict between man and nature, which he felt forged the strong, God-fearing character of Kansans. But human conflict can also wreak death and destruction. Looming behind John Brown, the tornado and prairie fire may symbolize the gathering storms of a war over slavery. Published in 1939, the print would have been circulated among Americans anxious about possible involvement in a second great war in Europe.

By presenting expressive figures and narratives, Curry and other Regionalist artists tried to capture the cultural essence and spirit of the Heartland. But through the specific, Curry aimed to express the universal. Curry's John Brown raises questions that still trouble Americans. At what point do moral convictions and injustices necessitate violent intervention? When do treasonous or criminal actions become a moral imperative? John Brown shows the motivating passion and the repercussions of actions that can be viewed as either criminal or heroic.

Karla Niehus
Associate Curator of Exhibitions