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 one of the three most important painters of the American Regionalism movement (6). Curry never focused on specific historical events, but instead tried to convey heroic farmers confronting the dangerous and unforgiving prairie life (2).
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. Artists fed on this depression and attempt of preserving what was left over. For example, 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” (6).
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 (4). Curry depicts this by showing the “pious hymn singers and the row of Ford Model-T cars” in contrast to the never-ending prairie and full-water submersion baptism (6). 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 (4). Also at the time of Curry’s childhood, the 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 (6).
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 failing urban life and towards “cultivation of the land, community, simplicity, and faith” (3). From my analysis, I view the ford cars as a depiction of urban life almost surrounding the whole scene, but you must fall back -like the woman being baptized- on old comforts of early America to get through the harder times. From a religious view, critics compare the two hovering birds to those from Noah’s flood: bringing peace and blessings on this religious act towards a better future (5).
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 had just ended and people were confused about their thoughts on Woodrow’s Progressivism and what it caused. This reaction to the effectiveness of Progressivism sparked Harding’s post war election slogan “return to normalcy” (4). And that’s exactly what people wanted again in the late 1920s and early 1930s: a return to normalcy.
I feel like the Great Depression was a step backwards. We had a booming economy filled with Progressive Ford cars and suddenly, there was a collision and the economy crashed. Americans did not know what to do than to go backwards to their grassroots. And this step backward is exactly what Curry shows in Baptism in Kansas.
1. “Baptism in Kansas” – John Curry. Oil on Canvas. 1928. 40 1/4 × 50 1/4 in
2. Joslyn Art Museum. “Curry Teaching Poster.” PDF. https://www.joslyn.org/Post/sections/375/Files/Curry%20Teaching%20Poster.pdf
3. 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
4. Krome-Lukens, Anna. In class discussion. 2015
5. PBS Newshour. “Curry’s Kansas.” Video Transcript. 1998. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-july-dec98-curry_8-13/
6. Whitney Museum of American Art. “Baptism in Kansas.” – currently on view. http://collection.whitney.org/object/2500