Encyclopedia of American Folk Art

By Gerard C.Wertkin; Lee Kogan | Go to book overview

K

KANE, JOHN S. (1860-1934)

was the first contemporary self-taught American artist to be recognized by the art establishment. He is best known for his large paintings of industrial Pittsburgh, most of which are today held in major American museums and institutions. Scenes of Scotland, recalling the artist's homeland, and depictions of children, elegiac allusions to his estranged family, also figure prominently in his work.

John Kane, the son of poor, working-class parents, immigrated to the United States from Scotland in 1879 with the hope of improving his economic circumstances. He roamed Pennsylvania, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky in search of employment. Buffeted from one job to the next by economic vicissitudes, he helped build the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, worked in a tubing factory, a coal mine, a steel mill, as a construction worker, and as a street paver. Kane's career of heavy physical labor terminated in 1891, after he lost a leg in a train accident. With his physical prowess diminished, he had a much more difficult time finding work, and when he did finally land a job, as a railroad watchman, he worked for substantially reduced wages.

In 1897 Kane married Maggie Halloran, and the following year their first child was born. Family obligations made it imperative for Kane to seek a higher paying job, so he went to work painting railroad cars for the Pressed Steel Car Company in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. There he developed his lifelong passion for art. At noon, while the other men were eating, Kane would slip back into the rail yards and cover the sides of the bare boxcars with pictures. Much to his relief, the foreman did not object, so long as the artist's creations were painted over after the lunch break. When the boxcar business slackened and Kane was laid off, he decided to put his new knowledge of painting to practical use. Like the limners who roamed America looking for portrait com missions, Kane went door to door offering to paint people's likenesses. Usually his customers would give him a photograph of the desired subject, which the artist had enlarged, and then he colored it with paint or pastel.

This phase in Kane's life came to an abrupt end in 1904, when his third child, a son, succumbed to typhoid fever. Kane took to drinking and temporarily lost all incentive to work. He left his family for long periods, finally losing track of them for several years. After wandering Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia for some time, he settled permanently in Pittsburgh. During periods of economic depression, he depended upon the support of charitable organizations such as the Salvation Army. In better times, Kane worked as a housepainter and carpenter. Despite his circumstances, he always tried to find a place for art in his life.

In order to teach himself more about painting and drawing, Kane haunted the only halls of knowledge that were open to him: Pittsburgh's public museums and libraries. From these sources, he developed a hazy awareness of the techniques and subjects of the "fine artist." In 1925 and again in 1926, Kane submitted copies of academic religious pictures to the Carnegie International Exhibition, then the most important American forum for international contemporary art. On both occasions, his submissions were rejected. On his third try, in 1927, however, Kane succeeded in winning over the Carnegie jury with one of his original compositions, a painting he called Scene in the Scottish Highlands.

The admission of a common housepainter and handyman to so prestigious an exhibition caused an immediate furor, both positive and negative. Many serious collectors and museums immediately took Kane into their hearts (and their collections). In addition to exhibiting repeatedly in the Carnegie International, Kane's work was shown at the then recently

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Encyclopedia of American Folk Art
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • List of Entries vii
  • Introduction xxvii
  • A 1
  • B 35
  • Bibliography 75
  • C 79
  • Bibliography 107
  • Bibliography 111
  • D 113
  • Bibliography 144
  • E 145
  • Bibliography 153
  • F 161
  • Bibliography 166
  • Bibliography 171
  • G 189
  • Bibliography 203
  • Bibliography 210
  • H 217
  • Bibliography 225
  • Bibliography 235
  • I 247
  • Bibliography 249
  • J 251
  • K 269
  • Bibliography 273
  • L 279
  • M 293
  • Bibliography 309
  • Bibliography 311
  • N 337
  • O 349
  • P 355
  • Bibliography 388
  • Q 411
  • R 421
  • Bibliography 433
  • S 447
  • Bibliography 450
  • Bibliography 472
  • Bibliography 484
  • Bibliography 490
  • Bibliography 494
  • Bibliography 496
  • T 509
  • U 527
  • V 529
  • W 539
  • Bibliography 540
  • Bibliography 546
  • Bibliography 556
  • Y 561
  • Index 569
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