Austrian & German Expressionism

John Kane: Modern America's First Self-Taught Painter

By Jane Kallir

The history of self-taught art in twentieth-century America begins with John Kane’s admission to the prestigious Carnegie International Exhibition in 1927. While the United States had fostered a rich tradition of self-taught art prior to this event, the Carnegie exhibition marked the first recognition of the genre by the high art establishment. The circumstances surrounding John Kane’s sudden ascension to renown, as well as the nature of his oeuvre, therefore may be considered paradigmatic of the self-taught field as a whole during this early period.


Until the twentieth-century, there was in the Western world a clear distinction between high art (taught in the academies and patronized by the aristocracy and the wealthier economic classes) and the "art of the common man" (to quote the title of the Museum of Modern Art’s groundbreaking 1932 exhibition), which was almost entirely ignored by the "serious" art establishment. However, one of the principal tenets of modernism--originally put forth by such pioneers as Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky and periodically reinforced through the ensuing decades--is that formal education is antithetical to true creative originality. This stance generated unprecedented interest in a whole host of previously despised "low" art forms, including not just folk art, but the art of children, of the mentally ill, of non-Western tribal cultures and just about anything else that fell outside the academic "norm."


The growing acceptance of European modernism in the United States following World War I was thus naturally accompanied by a new-found appreciation of all manner of self-taught creations. The process whereby this trend grew in America has by now been well documented: beginning with the rediscovery by artists such as Charles Demuth, Elie Nadelman and Charles Sheeler of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American folk objects, and continuing with the first major exhibitions of the genre, at the Whitney Studio Club in 1924 and at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932 and 1938. Though not openly voiced, the search was on for an American equivalent to Henri Rousseau, the painting toll collector who had charmed Picasso's group before the War.


This goal was achieved when John Kane, a Pittsburgh house painter, was plucked from among hundreds of entrants to the Carnegie International Exhibition by the artist Andrew Dasburg, a member of the jury. As the first artist of his kind to "crash" the high art establishment, Kane was a member of a watershed generation. He stood halfway between the professional folk painters and portrait limners of the nineteenth century, and such highly successful later twentieth century phenomena as Grandma Moses. Like others of this interim generation (including Moses) Kane initially had no realistic hopes of ever "making it" as an artist.


Self-taught art is the only art historical category to be defined not by style but by biographical circumstance, for it is biographical circumstance that determines whether an artist has the possibility to pursue formal training. In Kane’s case, the prevailing circumstance was economic. His parents, poor Irish peasants, had emigrated to Scotland in hopes of improving their lot, and it was here that Kane first saw the light of day in 1860. At his own insistence, John went to work in the shale mines at the age of nine. The following year, Mr. Cain (as the name was then spelled ) died, leaving his widow and seven children to fend for themselves. John, who had completed only the third grade, was never able to return to school full time, though he occasionally attended night classes when he did not have to work. Mrs. Cain eventually remarried, and the family began to prosper modestly. However, John's stepfather harbored a belief that they could do even better in America and went to seek his fortune there. In 1879, John joined his stepfather in Pennsylvania, and before long they had saved enough money to bring the rest of the family across the Atlantic.


During the next years, Kane roamed about the Pittsburgh area, from McKeesport to Connellsville to Braddock, and then went south to Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky in search of work. Buffeted from one job to the next by the vicissitudes of the economy, he helped build the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, worked in a tubing factory, a coal mine, a steel mill, and as a construction worker and street paver. "I was always on the lookout for better jobs," he wrote. "The wages interested me the most. The amount of work, the hardness of it, the hours and all like that, didn't worry me a bit." Kane was a powerful man, able to handle the most grueling factory work and even to hold his own in the boxing ring.


Kane had returned to Braddock and was living with his family when his career as a "brawnyman" came to an end. Cutting across the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad yards late one night, he and his companions were surprised by an unlit train. John pushed his cousin to safety, only to get his own leg caught on the track. Thirty-one at the time, he became a one-legged laborer with limited employment opportunities. It took him some months to recover from his accident, but he was not one to be permanently discouraged by misfortune. Balancing gracefully on his wooden prosthesis became one more skill to be mastered, and only in the last years of his life did a noticeable limp betray his handicap. Nevertheless, with his physical prowess diminished, Kane had a more difficult time finding work, and when he did finally land a job as a railroad watchman, it was at substantially reduced wages. He needed to develop abilities better suited to his new limitations, and it was thus that he got involved, bit by bit, with painting.


In 1897, Kane married Maggie Halloran, and the following year their first child, Mary, was born. Family obligations made it imperative for Kane to seek a higher paying job, and so he went to work painting railroad cars for the Pressed Steel Car Company in McKees Rocks. Here he found a passion that would outlast everything else in his tenuous, tragedy-prone life. "I . . . became in love with paint," he said quite simply. At noon, while the other men were eating, Kane would slip back into the railyards 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 concoctions were painted over after the lunch break. From that first encounter with paint, Kane learned methods and techniques that he never abandoned. With just the three primary colors, lightened or darkened with white or black, he was able to duplicate every shade under the sun. He developed a permanent disdain for pre-mixed colors and later insisted that "the best thing in the world for a young artist would be to hire himself out to a good painting contractor."


When the boxcar business slackened and Kane was laid off, he decided to put his new knowledge of paint to practical use. Like the limners of yore, he went door-to-door offering to paint people's likenesses. The invention of the camera had essentially put the limners out of business, but to Kane photography was a boon. He found that his customers generally had snapshots, often of a departed relative, that they wanted enlarged and embellished. He made the enlargements himself, or had them done commercially, and then colored them in paint or pastel.


Kane did well selling these photo-paintings--better, he claimed, than he did later with his larger, entirely original canvases. His little family flourished. A second daughter, Margaret, was born in 1901, but John dreamed of a son. In 1904, he got his wish, only to have it snuffed out when, a day after his birth, the infant succumbed to typhoid fever. Kane had survived economic slumps and physical injury, but this was a blow from which he never fully recovered. He took to drink and temporarily lost all incentive to work. He left his family for long periods, finally losing track of them altogether. Only in 1927, when she read about the Carnegie International in a New York newspaper, did Mrs. Kane rejoin her husband. In the intervening years, the artist wandered about Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, eventually settling permanently in Pittsburgh. During periods of economic depression, he depended on the support of charitable organizations such as the Salvation Army. In better times, he found work as a house painter and carpenter.


Throughout these long, dreary years, Kane continually tried to find a place for art in his life. Once he attempted to apprentice himself to a muralist, who, though polite in his rejection, was undoubtedly scornful of the amateur artist's qualifications. On several occasions, Kane considered enrolling in art school, but in each instance the tuition was too high. So he worked on his own. Scraps of beaver board picked up on one of his construction jobs gave him the material on which to create some of his first independent compositions. Recalling his success with the photo-paintings, he executed unsolicited freehand "portraits" of local houses, and then endeavored to sell them to the residents. As he had done all his life, he learned "on the job," through trial and error, the secrets of his chosen craft. Humbly acknowledging that academically trained artists had an advantage over him, he nonetheless felt proud of his self-made accomplishments. "Often in the past I have been at a loss to know how to overcome some significant point in artistic form that I would have learned easily in an art school," he said. "But my spirit of observation has helped me to acquire knowledge and so the source of my information did not matter."


In order to teach himself, Kane haunted the only halls of knowledge that were open to him: the public museums and libraries. From these sources he developed a hazy awareness of the procedures and subjects of the "fine" artist. A paucity of models must have hampered his efforts to draw from life, but he apparently got around this problem by sketching stationary figures on park benches, streetcars or in railroad stations. He also spent hours in the library copying pictures from illustrated art books. One surviving series of drawings records a vast repertoire of facial expressions, some of which were clearly inspired by an English-language edition of Charles le Brun's Traité des passions. Kane's initial submissions to the Carnegie International in 1925 and 1926 were copies of academic religious canvases that clearly reflected his conception of "serious" art. Such set pieces had been standard fare at the European salons of the preceding century, but Kane's copies did not qualify in Pittsburgh. On both occasions, his submissions were rejected: only original compositions, he was told, were allowed.


Though Kane did go on to win over the Carnegie jury with his painting Scene in the Scottish Highlands (Arkus 69), his earlier copying played a crucial role in his artistic development. It is an indisputable fact that almost all folk painters have learned by copying, but for decades this secret was closely guarded by the sophisticates who championed their work. The myth of the naive, as put forth in the writings of Kandinsky, held that the untrained artist was a wellspring of creative innocence, whose primordial instincts remained untainted by the effects of academic education. Thus it followed, or seemed to follow, that the self-taught artist must be completely uninfluenced. For this reason, one of Kane's earliest dealers advised the artist's heirs to burn all his smaller paintings and preliminary drawings. Fortunately these instructions were not heeded, although this material was long kept hidden.


Kane, like any artist, was extraordinarily sensitive to the pictorial stimuli provided by his environment, for it is preposterous to suggest that art can develop in a complete visual vacuum. Folk artists, unlike their academic colleagues, never learn to subordinate themselves to a single tradition, but rather pick and choose from the various available traditions those elements best suited to their particular expressive needs. Kane was one of the first to understand that reliance on photographic or printed source images does not make an artist any less original, and his defense of such practices is worth quoting.


"All artists," Kane wrote, "are copying nature. They see the hills, the valleys, the trees and they copy those. If an artist sees something in a book he likes he will copy that too, enlarging upon it or lessening it according to his requirements. So it makes no difference where he sees it, whether it is the work of nature, or of another man, or work in a book. He is bound to react to the inspiration he feels. He will copy in part and adapt and take out what he likes."


Kane's explanation of copying is also as good a description as has been written of the way in which he evolved the original landscape compositions that are considered his most important work. He outlined his methods as follows: "First of all, I have to see something which commands itself to my attention for one quality only, namely beauty. I first notice it, then I observe it well. Then I go back and visit as often as necessary, noting the things I want to include in my painting." Kane's surviving landscape drawings make it clear that he assembled his paintings piecemeal from a multitude of isolated images. The procedure was not particularly systematic or logical: it is unlikely that everything in his paintings was sketched out in advance, and sometimes several vignettes that would eventually appear on entirely different canvases were drawn on the same sheet of paper. Not a single drawing depicts a complete composition. In the final painting, elements were often freely transposed or eliminated entirely. The result was less a reflection of an actual scene than of the artist's mental image of that scene.


There is little doubt that most of Kane's landscapes were done from nature. By his own account, he had been making such studies since the 1880s with no change in method or manner. Starting around 1910, Kane routinely carried his painting supplies with him, so that he could make on-the-spot color sketches whenever the mood hit him. Although his finished paintings were generally executed in his apartment studio, he thought it imperative to get the color right by matching it on location and was dismayed when a change in weather or time of day threw the tonal balance off. He claimed that he often worked up full-fledged oil studies in this manner, but it is not clear whether any of the duplicate scenes that occur in his oeuvre were intended as "trial paintings."


Given Kane's habit of careful observation, it is unlikely that the "errors" or omissions in his landscape paintings were entirely accidental. In order to incorporate everything he considered important in a single canvas, he had to leave some things out. Kane had a tendency to tighten up or compress "empty" spaces. Alternatively, he might make a tree-covered hillside more interesting by filling it with little houses. In some cases, this was an act of pure imagination, and in others he merely "removed" concealing foliage to reveal buildings that were actually there.


Although it was reported that Kane carried a small box camera to aid in his study of the landscape it was also true, as he boasted, the "no camera was ever constructed to get the view of objects that I, as an artist, see and paint." Once Kane had established the boundaries of a vista that he wanted to paint, he became curious about details that could not necessarily be seen from the vantage point he had chosen. He is known to have trudged some distance into a valley to see what kind of flowers were in a window box. Often his paintings combine views observed from several vantage points. Whereas academic landscape painting presents its subject from a single perspective and blurs or omits things that fall out of range, Kane studied each scene from multiple angles and rendered each part with the same precision of detail.


John Kane's paintings of Pittsburgh may be considered the heart and soul of an oeuvre that also includes other subjects. It is probable that his remaining landscapes--views of Pennsylvania towns such as Harrisburg and Philadelphia, and of the Scottish Highlands--were done largely from photographs and memory. An added element of fantasy replaces the meticulous firsthand observation and interpretation that characterizes the artist's depictions of his home turf. Without exception, all his paintings embody cherished ideals and sentiments. He portrayed children with a wistful tenderness born of the separation from his own daughters and nurtured by his joyful reunion with his grandchildren. An annual "Scotch Day" at Kennywood, a local amusement park, served as the inspiration for a number of paintings memorializing the artist's native land, for which he retained an abiding love. Equally devoted to the United States, Kane identified strongly with Lincoln, the poor boy who made good, and considered the Gettysburg Address "among the greatest works of great men." He executed at least two paintings of the Address, written out word for word against the background of an American flag.


The majority of the approximately 156 recorded oil paintings by John Kane were probably executed after his Carnegie debut in 1927. Prior efforts are hard to date, generally smaller, and many were presumably lost. There is little question that public recognition spurred Kane's development as an artist--as it did, sometimes with mixed results, for so many self-taught artists thereafter. Yet notoriety was hardly an unmitigated blessing. The public reaction to Kane's artistic apotheosis reflected the same ambivalence that has dogged the field of self-taught art ever since.


In the wake of Kane's museum debut, the press beat a path to his door in the Pittsburgh tenement district known locally as the Strip. Of course, neither these reporters nor their readers could fathom the Carnegie's selection criteria: what they wanted was a human interest story. With their inherent flair for tragedy, the Pittsburgh tabloids turned the artist's career into a procession of little scandals. Kane's enduring poverty, the bitterest irony of his so-called success, became the subject of numerous vulgar headlines. And his death, from tuberculosis in 1934, was transformed into a garish media event, with photographers recording the final agonies of the emaciated, semi-conscious man, while writers daily debated his financial health in print.


Of all the petty controversies surrounding Kane during his seven years in the limelight, the worst was a deliberate exposé staged simultaneously by two leading newspapers, The Pittsburgh Press and the Sun Telegraph. From the start, the press was inclined to view the Carnegie's acceptance of Kane as a hoax, and local painters resented the fact (stressed repeatedly in the attendant publicity), that he was the only Pittsburgh artist to be so honored. One such jealous colleague, Milan Petrovits, decided that Kane's pictures were painted over photographs. On the occasion of Kane's first one-man show, mounted by the Pittsburgh Junior League in 1931, Petrovits convinced the Sun Telegraph to purchase one of the suspect paintings, and proved his point with varnish remover. The competing journal, not to be outdone, purchased another painting and did likewise. That evening, both papers published the evidence everyone had been clamoring for: John Kane was a fraud.


For days the issue was bandied about in the press. Kane explained that the photo-paintings had been done long ago and that all his prize-winning canvases were purely freehand. Eventually X-rays bore him out. Artists and museum officials rallied to his defense. Samuel Harden Church, president of the Carnegie Institute, declared that the scandal would in no way alter the artist's standing with the museum. In fact, Kane had already been invited to participate in that year's International, an honor that meant he could by-pass the jury and choose his own entry.


By the time of the photography exposé, it was clear that Kane's inclusion in the 1927 Carnegie International had been no fluke. In 1928, the jury had accepted his painting Old Clinton Furnace (Arkus 132), and after he again won admission the following year, the headlines finally declared, "Kane, House Painter, Ceases to be Joke." The impact of the Carnegie showings was bolstered by other exhibitions. In 1928, '29 and '33, the "house painter" took prizes at the Annual Exhibition of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh. In 1929, he was invited to participate in a group show at Harvard. In 1930, his Carnegie International entry, Across the Strip (Arkus 121), was purchased by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the first museum to own a Kane. As the artist began to be better known outside Pittsburgh, he acquired such well-heeled patrons as Mrs. John D. Rockefeller and Professor John Dewey. In the first decade of its existence, The Museum of Modern Art placed Kane in no fewer than four surveys of contemporary trends, among them its fifth anniversary exhibition, "Modern Works of Art." He appeared in "annuals" at major museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Cincinnati Art Museum, was included in the first and second Biennial Exhibitions of the Whitney Museum, and, until his death, continued to show every year at the Carnegie International.


During the 1930s, Kane's work was routinely exhibited alongside that of his more sophisticated colleagues, for "naive" or "folk" art was seen as a concomitant of the modern movement. Similarly, the first commercial galleries to enter the arena were primarily specialists in modernism. Whereas in 1927, there had been no established market for self-taught art and Kane was often forced to deal directly with clients, his estate was taken on by a noted American paintings dealer, Valentine Dudensing. Within a decade of Kane's death, the art world had grown crowded with "primitives" (then the term of choice for self-taught artists). Lawrence Lebduska, also a house painter, who had been doing murals for interior decorators, became a successful presence on the New York gallery scene in 1936. Horace Pippin was discovered in 1937, just in time to be included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1938 survey of contemporary European and American self-taught artists, "Masters of Popular Painting." Morris Hirshfield and Grandma Moses made their debut in a more private showing at MoMA in 1939. Israel Litwak, a retired cabinet-maker, was accorded a one-man show at the Brooklyn Museum that same year. By 1942, Sidney Janis could count thirty contemporary painters worthy of inclusion in the first book on the subject, They Taught Themselves.


For a brief period, it almost seemed that self-taught art might actually challenge or even eclipse contemporary "high" art. Alfred Barr, in setting forth the program of the fledgling Museum of Modern Art in 1933, announced that he intended to pursue three separate strands of inquiry: Cubism and abstraction, Dada and Surrealism, and self-taught art. Folk art hereby was granted the same importance as the other two strands, both of which were European in origin. America at this point had not yet developed an avant-garde comparable to Europe's, and the ire which American trained artists felt at being passed over in favor of more ignorant "inferiors" was already evident in their response to Kane. The stakes were raised with the advent of MoMA, and came to a head when, in 1943, Barr gave Hirshfield a retrospective. The ensuing scandal almost cost Barr his job, and effectively ended MoMA's advocacy of self-taught art.


From here on, modern American art and self-taught art would go their separate ways. As the former became increasingly abstract and sophisticated, the relatively realistic approach of self-taught painters such as Kane and Grandma Moses began to seem--well, "naive," in a pejorative sense. Self-taught art had sparked interest during the period leading up to World War II, when America was attempting to come to terms with European modernism. However, just as Picasso had admired Rousseau without ever really according him equal stature as an artist, America's embrace of self-taught art had always been slightly smug and superior. The genre was, in the words of one scholar, "an object lesson for modern art," rather than an entity deserving of respect in its own right. The hostility evident in the Petrovits and Hirshfield incidents hastened the art world's rejection of self-taught art in favor of the rising stars of Abstract Expressionism.


For many decades thereafter, contemporary self-taught art more or less disappeared from the scene. The Whitney, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art took down their Kanes, re-installing them sporadically on special occasions. Only the Carnegie Institute's Museum of Art in Pittsburgh retained a room honoring its native son. Self-taught art was shunted from mainstream institutions into specialized museums and galleries: separate and therefore, by definition, not equal. Even within organizations devoted to self-taught art, such as New York's Museum of American Folk Art, there were those who fervently maintained that the genre had died with the nineteenth century.


Only in the last fifteen years have a significant number of scholars recognized the legitimacy of twentieth-century self-taught art and given it a new context within the contemporary mainstream. The proliferation of exhibitions at major museums, such as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as countless shows at smaller regional museums, rivals or even surpasses the spate of exhibitions that took place in the 1930s and early '40s. However, much of today's self-taught art has a distinctly different "look" from the work produced by Kane and his generation. Whereas the earlier group tended to create recognizable renderings of the physical world, the so-called "Outsiders" currently in favor are usually driven by personal inner visions. Their work is, if not purely abstract, highly idiosyncratic.


Furthered by the collapse of the contemporary art market in the late 1980s and the trend toward multiculturalism, the present boom in self-taught art nevertheless has much in common with the boom of the 1930s and '40s. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the two major waves of American folk art appreciation came during periods when the art-world elite was foundering: originally, as the United States was developing a native avant-garde, and today, as the advancing tide of postmodernism undermines the hegemony once vouchsafed for that avant-garde. As it has throughout this century, self-taught art serves as a foil to the mainstream, a way of replenishing the creative juices when excessive orthodoxy threatens to take over.


It remains to be seen whether the current boom in self-taught art will at last succeed in permanently legitimizing the genre, or whether interest in the subject will again fade, as it did in the 1950s and '60s. Although the early modernists rejected the academy and granted heretofore unknown stature to nonacademic artforms of all descriptions, they did not seriously advocate the leveling of "high" and "low." If indeed such a leveling is endemic to the postmodern condition, then there may one day come a time when the label "self-taught" is completely irrelevant. In the meantime, it can still be said that the best self-taught artists easily hold their own alongside their trained colleagues.


Although the very notion of "quality" is today suspect, John Kane readily survives the challenge. His meticulous working methods, far from compromising his mythical "purity," show a conscientious and quite brilliant artistic mind at work. In a manner that would have made Kandinsky proud, Kane demonstrated that there is more than one kind of realism, and that the single-point perspective so long promulgated by the academy is not necessarily the most evocative means of rendering the landscape. Kane instead evolved a highly complex and original means of depicting the scenes that existed in his mind's eye--with all the details that he knew to be true and significant, rather than those that the unaided eye could see. If the test of artistic quality is the seamless mating of form with content, Kane surely passes muster. As he himself put it, "Of greater importance than technical accomplishment, . . . is that unity of handiwork with deep convictions, profound thought and lofty taste that, working together, create a great work of art."