John Steuart Curry arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1936 to be the nation’s first university artist-in-residence. He was hired by the College of Agriculture rather than the art department. University President Glenn Frank and College of Agriculture Dean Chris Christensen believed that art could help forge a bond between the University and the State’s farmers and that Curry was the ideal candidate because of his farm background and artistic accomplishments.
Kansas-born Curry was hailed alongside Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton as an outstanding proponent of American Regionalism. Popular in the late 1920s and early 30s, Regionalism advocated painting rural subjects in the “heartland” and was seen as a particularly American genre which rejected both elements of big-city industrialization and European-inspired modernism. For Curry, Regionalism meant “the artist must paint the thing that is most alive to him...the fullness of our life and experiences.” In short, he painted what was around him, not what was beyond his personal knowledge.
Growing up on a farm, art studies in Chicago and Paris, and a growing national reputation made Curry the ideal choice for the experimental artist-in-residence position. His contract was wonderfully vague: continue his own work, paint murals, hold workshops, encourage amateur artists, and foster greater cultural appreciation among farmers and rural residents. In essence, he was to be a roving ambassador for art, regardless of place or practitioner.
Curry loved Wisconsin. He engaged with the University’s students and football team and with the State’s rural artists, many of whom produced their art at the end of a hard day’s work. Curry also connected with the land; he hunted, camped, and fished. He felt appreciated and at home in Wisconsin.
Renegade Regionalists: The Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry
by James M. Dennis. Available in the MOWA Shop.
Exhibition reading panels