John S. Kane


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 hisestranged 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 buildthe 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 physicallabor 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 didfinally 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. Atnoon, 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 foremandid 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 puthis 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 allincentive 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 sometime, he settled permanently in Pittsburgh. During periods of economic depression, he depended upon the support of charitable organizations such as the SalvationArmy. 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 andlibraries. 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, hissubmissions 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 hecalled
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 seriouscollectors 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 established Whitney Museum of American Art and at the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York. While some journalists, most notably Marie McSwigan, whohelped Kane pen his autobiography, championed the artist’s work, others were surprisingly cruel. The Pittsburgh tabloids turned Kane’s career into a procession of little scandals. His enduring poverty, and the irony of his so-called success, became the subject of numerous vulgar headlines. Even the artist’s death, from tuberculosisin 1934, was transformed into a garish media event, with photographers recording the final agonies of the emaciated, semi-conscious man, while writers debated hisfinancial health daily in print. Though Kane reaped little tangible benefit from the success of a painting career that came so late in his life, he left a powerful legacy, bothin terms of his own artwork and of the pathway that he blazed for future self-taught artists.

Arkus, Leon Anthony.
John Kane, Painter.
Pittsburgh, Pa., 1971.Cahill, Holger, et al.
Masters of Popular Painting: Modern Primitives of Europe and America.
New York, 1938.Janis, Sidney.
They Taught Themselves.
New York, 1942.Kallir, Jane.
John Kane: Modern America’s First Folk Painter.
New York, 1984.Kane, John, as told to Marie McSwigan.
Skyhooks: The Autobiography of John Kane.
Philadelphia, 1938.Lipman, Jean, and Tom Armstrong, eds.
American Folk Painters of Three Centuries.
New York, 1980.Stein, Judith E. “John Kane,” in
Self-Taught Artists of the Twentieth Century: An American Anthology,
edited by Elsa Longhauser, et al. New York: Museum of American Folk Art, 1998