Book cover of a John Kane biography
August 19, 1860|
West Calder, Scotland
|Died||August 10, 1934
He was the first self-taught American painter in the 20th century to be recognized by a museum. When, on his third attempt, his work was admitted to the 1927 Carnegie International Exhibition, he attracted considerable attention from the media, which initially suspected that his success was a prank. He inadvertently paved the way for other self-taught artists, from Grandma Moses to Outsider Art. Today Kane is remembered for his landscape paintings of industrial Pittsburgh, many of which are held by major museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, Carnegie Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He was born John Cain to Irish parents in West Calder, Scotland on August 19, 1860. His father died when he was age 10, leaving behind a widow and 7 children. His father was employed as a grave digger in West Calder, it is said that he dug a grave on Friday and filled it on Monday. The young Kane quit school to work in the shale mines. He actually worked at Youngs Parrafin works and was so struck with the malleability of the hot parrafin moulds that he made a mask of his own face for his mother Biddy. Naturally he burned his face, but not too seriously. After his mother remarried, he emigrated to the United States at age 19, following his stepfather and older brother Patrick, who had preceded him to America and were working in Braddock, Pennsylvania, just east of Pittsburgh.
Kane as an American laborer
He first worked for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at McKeesport as a gandy dancer, one who stamps down stones between the railroad ties. Next he worked a stint in the steel industry at the National Tube Company in McKeesport, but soon left for a job in Connellsville, Pennsylvania at the coke ovens of Henry Clay Frick.
In 1891, while he was walking along the B&O railroad tracks, an engine running without its lights struck down Kane, severing his left leg 5 inches below the knee. He was fitted with an artificial limb, and his disability landed him a new job with the B&O as a watchman. He was a watchman for eight years.
Begins as a painter
He left his watchman job to paint steel railroad cars at the Pressed Steel Car Company in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, on the Ohio River just south of downtown Pittsburgh. He began to draw on the side of railroad cars on his lunch hour to "fill in the colors". His sketched landscapes disappeared after lunch beneath the standard, solid color of the railroad car paint. For a short time he tried to earn money by enlarging and tinting photographs for working-class families.
Kane had married Maggie Halloran in 1897 at St. Mary's Catholic Church in downtown Pittsburgh. The death of an infant son in 1904 led him into a vortex of drinking and depression, which caused long periods of wandering, during which he worked as an itinerant house painter and carpenter. In Akron, Ohio in 1910 he first began to do pictorial paintings on discarded boards from construction sites. By the end of World War I, Kane was again in Pittsburgh, where he spent the remainder of his life. He remained separated from his wife and children.
In both 1925 and 1926 he submitted paintings to the Carnegie Internationals sponsored by the Carnegie Museum of Art, but the works were rejected. The next year, however, Kane found a champion in painter–juror Andrew Dasburg, who persuaded the jury to accept Kane’s Scene in the Scottish Highlands (Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh). The story of the untrained 67-year-old painter's success was trumpeted by the newspapers. The publicity around the show came to the notice of Kane's wife, who was living in West Virginia, and with whom he'd lost contact for over ten years. They reconciled and remained together during the last years of his life.
When it was discovered that he had painted over discarded photographic images, purely for financial reasons, he was hounded by newspapers and unsuccessful artists who claimed him a sham. Kane continued to paint his primitive landscapes and self-portraits, including his famous Self-portrait (1929) in the collection of MoMA, New York. He had his first New York one-man show in 1931.
- Grove Art Online: John Kane
- Grove Art Online: John Kane
- Arkus, Leon Anthony (1971). John Kane, Painter. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 0-8229-3217-2.
- Jane Kallir, "John Kane: Modern America’s First Folk Painter", The Clarion, Spring/Summer 1984.