John Steuart Curry

The following excerpt is from

John Steuart Curry, the celebrated American Scene painter, taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1936 until his death in 1946. While artist-in-residence, he was given commissions by the university and continued his own personal projects. Madison Landscape is a portrait of Wisconsin’s state capital. Seen from a high point overlooking the city, the white marble, gold-domed Capitol building is the focus of the landscape. It sits on a hill at the midpoint of an isthmus that connects Lakes Mendota and Monona. In the distance are the softly rolling hills of the countryside, washed in the colors of autumn that also tinge the leaves of the two trees that bracket Curry’s composition.

Although Curry works in a realist style, he takes liberties with nature. There is no hill quite so high in Madison. With the two foreground trees and hill slope, and with the branches and leaves of the tree to the right that overlap the white cumulus clouds, Curry frames Madison with nature. This may explain why the city and capitol building are so small relative to its setting. Curry connects humanity to the natural scheme of things—trees, lakes, beautiful sky, nurturing landscape, and the change of seasons—that embraces and protects a citadel for the noble seats of democratic government and learning.

John Steuart Curry, Madison Landscape, oil and tempera on canvas, 1941.

John Steuart Curry, Thomas Hart Benton, and Grant Wood were Regionalist painters. With the Social Realists, they composed the group of artists who defined American Scene Painting. This art movement, which prevailed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, sought to portray American life in traditional realist styles. The tone of their work could be lyrically nationalist or critical.

Born in Kansas, Curry studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and in Paris. He taught in New York at the Art Students’ League but returned to the Midwest in 1936 to teach as artist-in-residence in the College of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He continued to teach and paint there until his death in 1946 at the age of forty-nine. Free brushwork and energized forms characterize his realist style that poeticizes and celebrates the history and everyday life of his beloved Midwest.

Curry has many murals here in Madison located on the University of Wisconsin campus.

The Social Benefits of Biochemical Research

                          Freeing the Slaves

Randall third graders created their own class murals inspired by Curry’s Madison Landscape painting.

Each student drew their own building and person after practicing textures, patterns and gesture drawings.

Four of the five third grade classes participated. The fifth class was participating in Terrace Town at the time these were created.

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