Month: February 2015

Baptism in Kansas

Baptism in Kansas, by regionalist John Steuart Curry, is a cultural and social reaction to the Great Depression.

Born on November 14, 1897 in north-eastern Kansas, John Curry learned a farmers struggle. However, he did not let this struggle affect his will to be an artist. Because of his exquisite narratives of Midwest farm life, Curry is considered on of the three most important painters of the American Regionalism movement (Whitney Museum). Curry never focused on specific historical events, but instead tried to convey heroic farmers confronting the dangerous and unforgiving prairie life (Joslyn Art Museum).

In October 1929, the economy of the United States crashed. While some deprivations were worse than others, there was a nation-wide Depression, and a nation-wide call to arms. One critic from the Whitney Museum of Art states: “Regionalism is the movement that glorified grassroots rural values during the poverty-stricken years of the Great Depression” (Whitney Museum).

Curry’s Baptism in Kansas c. 1928, currently located in the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, depicts many American achievements from the 1920s, but also many hardships. In 1928, the gap in economic distribution of wealth was at its highest peak in American history so far (Krome-Lunkens). Curry depicts this by showing the “pious pious hymn singers and the row of Ford Model-T cars” in contrast to the never-ending prairie and full-water submersion baptism (Whitney Museum).  Now this might not seem like a huge contrast right now, but at the time, the prices to keep a prairie field seeded and mowed were unattainable to 1/3 of the American population (Krome-Lunkens) Also at the time of Curry’s childhood, 1890s, there was a state-wide drought: the local creeks were dried up, making it harder to cultivate the land and to have a river baptism, thus a water tank was the only substitute (Whitney Museum)

Curry grew up a Scottish Calvinist, and depicted that faith in many of his works. The baptism in this oil painting shows the vulnerability of people during the late 1920s. People are leaning away from the urban depression and towards “cultivation of the land, community, simplicity, and faith” (Junker). From my analysis, I view the ford cars can be seen as a depiction of urban life almost surrounding the whole scene, but if you fall back -like the woman being baptized- on old comforts of early America, one can get through the harder times. The two hovering birds, critics compare them to Noah flood, bring peace and blessing on this religious act but also towards a better future (PBS Newshour).

People wanted Regionalism: to go back to simpler times and glorify their roots. The ideals of Regionalism remind me of ten years before in history: the Great War has just ended and people were confused about their thoughts of Woodrow’s Progressivism and what it caused. This reaction sparked Harding’s post war election slogan “return to normalcy” (Krome-Lunkens). And that’s exactly what people wanted again in the late 1920, early 1930s, a  return to normalcy.



“Baptism in Kansas” – John Curry. Oil on Canvas. 1928. 40 1/4 × 50 1/4 in

Joslyn Art Museum. “Curry Teaching Poster.” PDF.

Junker, Patricia. “John Steuart Curry.” American Art Review 1998.,%20American%20Art%20Review,%20June%201988.pdf

Krome-Lukens, Anna. In class discussion. 2015

PBS Newshour. “Curry’s Kansas.” Video Transcript. 1998.

Whitney Museum of American Art. “Baptism in Kansas.” – currently on view.


Election Night

Election Night, by John Sloan, is a social realist portrayal of a busy urban New York City night in 1907.

John Sloan was born in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania in 1871. Sloan wanted to be an artist since he was little, but had to pause schooling at the age of 16 to help his family’s economic situation (John French Sloan). Sloan found illustration jobs for the local newspaper and later started studying art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, where he met fellow artist and friend Robert Henri. In his mid thirties, Sloan moved to Greenwich Village, NY where he focused on urban street life as his subject matter. In New York, Robert Henri created an art exhibit with Sloan and six other realist artists at the time: “The Eight.” This exhibit snowballed into the creation of the Ashcan School for American Art which focused on social realist painting (Lopate).

In the early 1900s the Ashcan School focused on the grittier side of metropolitan life: Social Realism. Social Realism is a branch of Post-Impressionism that focused on social issues of everyday life. (ARTcyclopedia). Often times, Sloan was considered “the Painter in the Crowd” (John Sloan: Figuring the Painter). What I mean by this is Sloan painted what he saw, and didn’t idealize it like in the impressionism art movement.

Currently located in the Collection of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, this oil painting pulls the viewer into the scene. And that if fully “The Painter in the Crowd’s” intention; he wants you to also be in the scene. Here is the scene of Election Night written in Sloan’s Journal:

“Took a walk in the afternoon and saw boys in droves, foraging for fuel for their election fires this evening. . . . after dinner . . . out again and saw the noisy trumpet blowers, confetti throwers and the “ticklers” in use—a small feather duster on a stick which is pushed in the face of each girl by the men, and in the face of men by the girls. A good humorous crowd, so dense in places that it is impossible to control one’s movement.” (John French Sloan)

“Impossible to control one’s movement” is exactly how I would describe Sloan’s oil painting; the quick brushstrokes heighten the sense of movement. This piece was very relative to the working class of New York at the time, because of the location and energy depicted in this work. While this a a very shaded and quick piece, the detailing of the Herald Building (on the painting’s left) and the elevated train tracks on Sixth Avenue are very obvious (Seeing America). The train’s light, movement and noise add to the lively feel in this scene. The early 1900s was the time of Progressivism, but to me, this scene seems the opposite of social control: a celebration! (Krome-Lunkens)

Sloan draws the viewer in with the centered woman in red. Then directional movement is created by the seemingly constant expansion of the crowd in the back. This never-ending crowd is paralleled to the “never-ending” greatness of industry in the United States (Seeing America). While the triangle of the crowd draws the viewer further back, the circular artificial lights in the top left bring focus back to the foremost celebrants.

Now the strange concept of time in this painting is that it was created in 1907, no elections were partaking: T. Roosevelt was reelected in 1904 and New York mayor, George McClellan, was safely serving in his second term (Lopate). There is nothing in the painting about the outcome – no posters or anything. But many critics state: while John Sloan was known as a socialist, he did not want to be a social/political commentator in his work (Krome-Lunkens). So the ‘Election of 1907’ is a mystery to me, but could just be a depiction of another election night in years past.

Most importantly is that Sloan stuck to his new style, creating a new art movement: social realism. Elite critics called Sloan’s work “vulgar” and “disturbing” – lacking beauty (Coco).  But it was just an accurate portrayal or lower class/working class citizens.


ARTcyclopedia. “Artists by movement: Social Realsim.”

Coco, Janice Marie.  “John Sloan.”  American National Biography Online.

“John Sloan: Figuring the Painter in the Crowd.”  JStor. The Art Bulletin.  Vol. 93, No. 3 (September 2011), pp. 345-368.

“John French Sloan (1871-1951).” Taos and Santa Fe Painters.

Krome-Lukens, Anna. -In class Discussion. 2015

Lopate, Phillip. “Ashcan School.” New York Times. December 7 2007.

“Seeing America: John Sloan’s Election Night, 1907.” Seeing America Through Artists Eyes.