Jefferson County History
"Local Boy Makes Good"
John Steuart Curry, Artist
Written by Jan Tompkins
Perhaps Jefferson County's best known "famous son" is John Steuart Curry (1897-1946), an artist whose paintings seem to me like a blend of 30's styling with those of
El Greco. Sort of “El Greco Art Deco,” I’d say. His dramatic portrait of a wild-eyed John Brown is well known, as is his depiction of a dark Kansas storm. His murals in the Kansas statehouse are world famous. Not my kind of art, but because there’s a family connection, I must be kind when I speak of him. After all, my Aunt Mary’s aunt gave Curry his very first art lessons. That’s Aunt Mary Lacy Kimmel Bower’s aunt, Mary Alice Howland Worswick, for you family members. When he was a 13-year-old kid, young Curry asked if Mrs. Worswick would teach him to paint. She would. He rode horseback the seven miles to her home each week for painting lessons, hoping that his school friends would not find out.
Apparently the lessons took, because he became highly successful, and he was later chosen to paint the murals of Kansas history that adorn the state capitol in Topeka.
Curry, according to Wikipedia was born November 14, 1897, on a farm in Dunavant, Jefferson County, the eldest of Thomas Smith Curry and Margaret Steuart's five children. "Despite growing up on a Midwestern farm," says Wikipedia, "both of Curry's parents were college educated and had even visited Europe for their honeymoon. Curry's early life consisted of caring for the animals on the farm, attending the nearby high school and excelling in athletics." Wikipedia cites reproductions of paintings by Rubens and Gustav Dore in his home as being influential in Curry's style.
"Tornado Over Kansas"
In 1916, according to Wikipedia, Curry spent a month at the Kansas City Art Institute, then transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago for two years. He later graduated from Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, then worked as an illustrator from 1921-1926. His clients included Boys' Life, St. Nicholas, Country Gentlemen, and Saturday Evening Post, says Wikipedia.
"Baptism In Kansas"
Curry studied in Paris during the 1920's, then returned to the United States. He married Clara Derrick in 1924, says Wikipedia, then moved to Connecticut. "Clara died in June 1932 and for the next two years Curry devoted his time to working in his studio. He traveled with the Ringling Brothers Circus, and during his time with them created his painting The Flying Cadonas." In 1934 he married Kathleen Gould. That same year, the New Deal government established its Federal Art Project to give work to artists. By 1936 he had been commissioned to paint a mural for the Justice Building in Washington DC, as well as the Interior Building. The commission for the Kansas Capitol came that same year, and features perhaps his most famous painting, that of a fiery John Brown.
Curry died September 1, 1946, at the age of 49. He is buried in Jefferson County's Reformed Presbyterian Cemetery near Winchester. His parents, grandparents, and dozens of other Currys are also buried in this cemetery. (I did not find a listing in Jefferson County for either of his wives.)
Now the old Curry house, the house where John Steuart Curry grew up, has been moved to Oskaloosa’s “Old Jefferson Town,” and its collection of historic buildings. (The last time I was at Old Jefferson Town, my aunt Mary Bower was the tour guide for the Curry house.)
© 2012 Janice Bower Tompkins
Return to Jefferson Co. KHHP
This website created Nov. 12, 2011 by Sheryl McClure.
© 2011 Kansas History and Heritage Project