Painter, muralist, and illustrator John Steuart Curry is considered one of the three important painters of the American Regionalist movement, along with Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and Grant Wood of Iowa. Curry was born in north-eastern Kansas in 1897, and grew up on his family's farm. Curry left high school to attend the Kansas City Art Institute briefly, and then studied at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1916 with Edward J. Timmons and John Norton. Curry later spent a year in Paris studying with Basil Schoukhaieff in 1926 and 1927.
Curry began his career as a freelance illustrator in Leonia, New Jersey, under the influence of Harvey Dunn. Curry's illustrations were widely published in illustrated magazines such as Boy's Life, Country Gentleman, and Saturday Evening Post in the early 1920s. He married Clara Derrick in 1923 and lived in Greenwich Village, and then Westport, Connecticut, from 1924 to 1936. Derrick died in 1932, and in 1934 Curry married Kathleen Gould.
Curry's career shifted from illustration to painting during the 1920s and 1930s, bolstered by success in exhibitions and sales. Exhibits included the National Academy of Design (1924), the Corcoran Gallery (1927-1928), a solo exhibition at the Whitney Studio Club (1930), and the Carnegie International Exhibition (1933). Early sales include Baptism in Kansas, purchased by the Whitney in 1930, and Spring Shower, purchased by the Metropolitan Museum in 1932. Curry taught at Cooper Union (1932-1934) and the Art Student's League (1932-1934), and painted his first murals in Westport under the Federal Art Project in 1934.
In 1936, he was appointed artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture as part of a rural art program developed by rural sociologist John Burton. The purpose of his residency was to serve as an educational resource for rural people of the state. Curry stayed in this position until his death in 1946, carrying out the program's mission through lectures and visits with dozens of art and civic groups around the state, and by making himself available to rural artists through correspondence and guidance in his studio. He also helped to organize annual rural art exhibitions for UW's Farm and Home Week beginning in 1940. In return for his work, he was given a salary and a studio on campus and the freedom to execute his own work as he chose.
Under the Federal Art Program's Section of Painting and Sculpture, Curry completed two murals in the Justice Department building in Washington in 1936, Westward Migration and Justice Defeating Mob Violence, and two murals in the Department of the Interior building in 1938, The Homestead and The Oklahoma Land Rush. A design that was rejected by the government for the Justice building, a mural entitled Freeing of the Slaves, was later executed at the University of Wisconsin in their law library. From 1938 to 1940, Curry worked on murals for the state house rotunda in Topeka, Kansas admist a stormy, public controversy over his dramatic depiction of Kansas history. The legislature effectively blocked Curry's completion of the project through a formal resolution not to remove marble that was blocking areas that were part of Curry's design. Infuriated, Curry left the unfinished murals unsigned, and later derided the state frequently for the treatment he received. The Kansas State legislature issued a formal apology and appreciation of the completed murals in the 1990s.
Despite the lack of appreciation of his home state, Curry did receive recognition elsewhere during his lifetime as an artist of national importance. He continued to paint and exhibit in the art centers of the East Coast. In 1941, he won the Gold Medal Award at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts exhibition, and in the 1942 Artists For Victory exhibition, he won the top prize for Wisconsin Landscape. Curry's book illustrations were in high demand, and he contributed to books such as My Friend Flicka, editions of Lincoln's and Emerson's writings, and Wisconsin writer August Derleth's The Wisconsin. A biography of Curry written by Laurence Schmeckebier was published in 1942.
Curry died in 1946 of heart failure. A retrospective that had been planned for the living artist opened less than a month after his death at the Milwaukee Art Institute. His wife, Kathleen Curry, maintained his estate until her death, in 2001, at the age of 102. Additional retrospective exhibitions were held at Syracuse University in 1956 and in the Kansas State Capitol in 1970. In 1998, the exhibition "John Steuart Curry: Inventing the Middle West" was organized at the University of Wisconsin and traveled to the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum and the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art.