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Cool Things - The Spirit of Kansas

The Spirit of Kansas painting.Loaded with symbolism about the state's promising future, this large oil painting was titled "The Spirit of Kansas."

Mary Pillsbury Weston, a professional artist and a resident of Lawrence, Kansas, created this work especially for display at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

This huge world's fair commemorated Columbus's discovery of America and celebrated four centuries of human progress. Exhibits and activities exposed visitors to the higher realms of culture such as art, religion, and music, as well as laying out before them the technological marvels and material abundance of the modern world. On a lighter note, mass audiences enjoyed for the first time such delights as motion pictures, ragtime music, Crackerjacks, and the newly-invented Ferris wheel.

Into this busy environment of edification and fun, Kansas sent its own symbols of progress, demonstrating how far it had come in the less than four decades since the beginnings of white settlement and the violent conflicts of "Bleeding Kansas." The state's displays illustrated its thriving industry, extensive educational system, and active and cultured citizenry.

Weston's painting fit neatly into this theme of progress. Family tradition holds that the The Spirit of Kansas expressed her wish "for the state of Kansas to move forward peacefully. The dove represents peace; the snake tyranny (being stamped out); and the receding storm clouds her hope that violence is disappearing."

Though its bright colors and exuberant symbolism may appear a bit lush to modern eyes, the painting's imagery clearly conveys a message central to its era--that Culture and Civilization had brought mankind out of the darkness and into the light. This theme appeared often in early descriptions of Kansas, as observers praised the state for the speed with which white man's civilization had transformed the howling waste into well-ordered modernity.

In addition to addressing such lofty themes, The Spirit of Kansas tells a more mundane tale of the countless practical concerns of managing such a huge undertaking as the World's Columbian Exposition. Slightly to the right of the young woman is a scar exposing a small area of canvas. A letter to the artist discussing arrangements for shipping the painting home from Chicago reveals the origin of this wound. "A man with an umbrella in hand was pointing at some feature . . . when the crowd behind gave him a push which sent the point of umbrella into picture. . . . Am very sorry but it could not be helped."

After its brief adventure in the big city, The Spirit of Kansas returned to the artist's home in Lawrence. There it remained until being given to the Kansas Historical Society in 1954. The painting is in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History.

Entry: Cool Things - The Spirit of Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: November 1995

Date Modified: October 2012

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.