John Steuart Curry (American, 1897-1946),
oil on canvas, 30 x 40 1/4 in.; 76.2 x 102.24 cm
Museum purchase, 1979.142
Curry, best known for his dramatic paintings of Kansas and Wisconsin farm life, belongs to the tradition of American Scene painters. These artists felt American artists should depict American subject matter. This goal was in harmony with the prevailing nationalistic mood of America in the twenties--a mood reflected in the country's isolationist foreign policy as well as the revived interest in the literature of Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. Artistically, this nationalistic fever, climaxing in the 1930s, became embodied in a triumvirate of painters who attempted to create a valid American iconography and mythology based upon an often nostalgic view of their birthplaces in the rural Midwest.
Born in 1897 on a farm near Dunavant, Kansas, Curry received his first formal training in painting at age twelve. In 1916 he left home to enroll at the Kansas City Art Institute, but remained for only one month, before moving to Chicago, where he studied at the Art Institute for two years. After graduating, Curry traveled to the east coast, where he was exposed to the art of illustration, and eventually ventured oversees to Europe.
Manhunt, painted early in Curry's career, portrays a form of lynching prevalent in the South after Reconstruction. Stylistically, Curry's depiction of the manhunt draws upon both his background in illustration and his 1928 trip to Paris. The painting recalls many of the characteristics of the Old Masters: Rubens's bravado color and fluid space, Delacroix's love of horses, and Honore Daumier's sinuous forms, seen in the posse group. Compositionally, Manhunt reflects Curry's training as an illustrator, with Pyle's philosophy acting as an underlying precept. By placing the leader of the posse in the front of the picture, with the other men trailing behind, Curry presents an immediate, direct view of the group's fanaticism. Everything contributes to conveying the lynching party's feverish sense of their mission: the forward motion of the human figures, the rearing horse, the rigid pose of the bloodhound. Moreover, the eerie green landscape evokes an aura of primordial evil, while the sharp chiaroscuro underscores the dramatic action.