John Canaday was born in Fort Scott, Kansas to Franklin and Agnes F. (Musson) Canaday. His family moved to Dallas when Canaday was seven and later moved to San Antonio, where he attended Main Avenue High School. Canaday entered the University of Texas in 1924 and earned a B.A. degree in French and English literature in 1929. He subsequently studied painting and art history at Yale University, where he received an M.A. in 1933. He taught at Washburn University of Topeka in 1933-34; at Newcomb College, Tulane University, New Orleans (1934–36); Hollins College, Roanoke, Virginia (1936–38); and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville (1938–50). In 1943 he traveled to the Belgian Congo and acted as a French interpreter for the Bureau of Economic Welfare. The following year he joined the United States Marine Corps. He served as a lieutenant in the South Pacific until the end of World War II, after which he returned to the University of Virginia. From 1950 to 1952 Canaday headed the art school at Newcomb College in New Orleans. He worked as chief of the educational division at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1953 to 1959. During this period he wrote the text for Metropolitan Seminars in Art, a widely distributed series of 24 portfolios published between 1958 and 1960 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In 1959 Canaday began a 17-year career as a leading art critic for the New York Times. In his first column on September 6, 1959, he inflamed the art establishment by proclaiming that Abstract Expressionism, the dominant style of the period, allowed "exceptional tolerance for incompetence and deception." Although he acknowledged the talent of the best Abstract Expressionists, he noted that "we have been had" by the "freaks, the charlatans, and the misled who surround this handful of serious and talented artists." Canaday's inaugural column and subsequent articles criticizing this style provoked a much-publicized letter to the New York Times signed by 49 of the nation's leading art figures, who denounced Canaday as an agitator. Other artists and critics, however, championed him as an honest and articulate observer of the art scene, which continued to provide ample targets for his barbed wit over the years.
In addition to writing for the Times, Canaday published a number of influential books, notably Mainstreams of Modern Art: David to Picasso (1959), winner of the Athenaeum Literary Award and a popular art history textbook for many years. His experiences as a critic provided the subject matter of two books, Embattled Critic: Views on Modern Art (1962) and Culture Gulch: Notes on Art and Its Public in the 1960s (1969). He also wrote Keys to Art, with Katherine H. Canaday (1963), The Lives of the Painters (1969), Baroque Painters (1972), Late Gothic to Renaissance Painters (1972), Neoclassic to Post-Impressionist Painters (1972), My Best Girls: 8 Drawings (1972), The New York Guide to Dining Out in New York (1972), The Artful Avocado (1973), Richard Estes: The Urban Landscape (1979), What is Art? An Introduction to Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture (1980), and Ben Shahn, Voices and Visions (1981).
In the 1940s and 1950s, under the pen name Matthew Head, Canaday wrote seven crime novels with such titles as The Smell of Money (1943), The Congo Venus (1950), and Murder at the Flea Club (1957). Drawing in part on his experiences in the Congo, he set three of his mysteries in Africa, and they were heralded by one critic as subtly foreshadowing a time of change on the African continent.
In 1974, Canaday stepped down from his post as art critic in order to devote more time to writing books, although he continued to write restaurant reviews for the Times until his retirement in 1977. Canaday taught several courses as a guest lecturer at the University of Texas in the spring of 1977. He continued to lecture and to write for such publications as Smithsonian magazine, The New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine until his death.
John Canaday married Katherine S. Hoover on September 19, 1935, and they had two sons. He died of pancreatic cancer.
- New York Times, July 21, 1985.
- New Yorker, January 4, 1964.
- Who's Who in America, 1984-85.
- John Canaday Papers at Syracuse University Special Collections Research Center