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.

 

References:

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

Joslyn Art Museum. “Curry Teaching Poster.” PDF. https://www.joslyn.org/Post/sections/375/Files/Curry%20Teaching%20Poster.pdf

Junker, Patricia. “John Steuart Curry.” American Art Review 1998. http://www.phs.poteau.k12.ok.us/williame/APAH/readings/John%20Steuart%20Curry,%20American%20Art%20Review,%20June%201988.pdf

Krome-Lukens, Anna. In class discussion. 2015

PBS Newshour. “Curry’s Kansas.” Video Transcript. 1998. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-july-dec98-curry_8-13/

Whitney Museum of American Art. “Baptism in Kansas.” – currently on view. http://collection.whitney.org/object/2500