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John Kane

American, 19th-20th century.
Born 1860, West Calder, Scotland; died 1934, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia.


The son of poor Irish peasants who had immigrated to Scotland in hopes of improving their lot, John Kane was born 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. 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 few years, Kane roamed around the Pittsburgh area, from McKeesport to Connellsville to Braddock, and then went south to Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky in search of work. 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. 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 became involved, bit by bit, in 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. 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.

In 1925 and again in 1926, Kane submitted copies of academic religious canvases to the Carnegie International exhibition, then the most important American forum for international contemporary 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.

On his third try in 1927, however, Kane succeeded in winning over the Carnegie jury with one of his own compositions, a painting he called Scene in the Scottish Highlands. The admission of a common house-painter and handyman to so prestigious an exhibition caused an immediate furor. Indeed, it was the first time ever that a living self-taught artist had been recognized by the American art establishment. 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.

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 the public wanted was a human interest story. With their inherent flair for tragedy, the Pittsburgh tabloids turned the artist's career into a procession of small 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. Nevertheless, though Kane reaped little tangible benefit from his late-life success, he left a powerful legacy, both in terms of his artwork and in terms of the pathway that he blazed for future self-taught artists. 

- Courtesy of Galerie Saint Etienne


Selected Exhibitions 

2013, Recent Acquisitions: And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

2013, Story Lines: Tracing the Narrative of "Outsider" Art, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

2012, Recent Acquisitions: And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

2012, The Ins and Outs of Self-Taught Art: Reflections on a Shifting Field, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

2011, Self-Taught Painters in American 1800-1950: Revisiting the Tradition, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

2009, They Taught Themselves: American Self-Taught Painters Between the World Wars, Galerie Saint Etienne, New Yor

2005, 65th Anniversary Exhibition, Part II: Self-Taught Artists, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

2000, Recent Acquisitions (And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market), Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1998, Recent Acquisitions: (And Some Thoughts About Looted Art), Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1996, Breaking All The Rules: Art in Transition, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1995, Recent Acquisitions, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1994, 55th Anniversary Exhibition in Memory of Otto Kallir, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1994, The Forgotten Folk Art of the 1940's, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1993, Recent Acquisitions, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1993, The "Outsider" Question:Non-Academic Art from 1900 to the Present, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1992, Naive Visions/Art Nouveau and Expressionism/Sue Coe: The Road to the White House, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1991, Recent Acquisitions: Themes and Variations, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1989, Folk Artists at Work: Morris Hirshfield, John Kane and Grandma Moses, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1988, Recent Acquisitions and Works From the Collection, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1987, Recent Acquisitions and Works From the Collection, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1987, Folk Art of This Century, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1984, American Folk Art: People, Places and Things, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1982, The Folk Art Tradition: Naïve Painting in Europe and the United States, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1948, American Primitives, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

Selected Solo Exhibition

1984, John Kane: Modern America's First Folk Painter, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

Selected Collections

American Folk Art Museum, New York
Anthony Petullo Collection of Self-Taught and Outsider Art, Milwaukee
Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

Selected Bibliography

Janis, Sidney, foreword by Alfred H. Barr, They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th century, New York, 2009.

Holt, Frank, Wendell Garrett, Virginia M. Mecklenburg, Jane Kallir and Stephen May, American Folk Art Masters, exhibition catalogue, Mennello Museum of American Folk Art, New York, 2001.

Kallir, Jane, Masters of Naive Art, exhibition catalogue, Yamagataya Art Gallery, Hakata Daimaru Art Gallery and Tokyo Daimaru Art Gallery, Tokyo, 1989. 

Kallir, Jane, John Kane: Modern America’s First Folk Painter, exhibition catalogue, Galerie St. Etienne, New York, 1984. 

Four American Primitives, exhibition catalogue, ACA Galleries, New York, 1972.

American Primitive Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, 1958.

American Primitives: Edward Hicks, Joseph Pickett, John Kane, and Others, exhibition catalogue, Galerie St. Etienne, New York, 1948.

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