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Kansas State Capitol - Curry murals

Tragic Prelude by John Steuart CurryThe Kansas State Capitol has been host to many debates on artwork since its completion in 1903. In 1937 a Kansan was selected to portray the story of Kansas in murals on the second floor. John Steuart Curry, born near Dunavant in Jefferson County, was hired. Curry had developed a reputation with his murals in several federal government buildings in Washington, D.C. Just four years later, though, legislators passed a resolution stopping Curry from completing his work. That year Curry left his home state never to return, leaving the finished murals unsigned.

Depicting the "historic struggle of man with nature," Curry created Tragic Prelude on the east and north wall of the east corridor, as the first chapter in the state's history. The famous painting made a legend of John Brown, and included Coronado and Padre Padilla. View several of Curry's statehouse studies. For the rotunda, Curry designed images depicting a Kansas homestead, barbed wire fences, the plagues, soil erosion, corn and wheat, and the great cattle drives, as the second chapter in the history. Curry created Kansas Pastoral in the west wing, to show the "overpowering sensuousness of the land at sunset and in its time of abundant harvest." This wing, the last chapter, depicted contemporary Kansans of the 1930s.

Kansas Pastoral by John Steuart CurryAs he painted, the public began to complain about the people and animals depicted in the west wing. There were controversies over his use of fanatical abolitionist John Brown as a focal point, the color of the Hereford bull, the length of the woman's skirt, and the curling pig's tail. After finishing the main panels in the corridors in 1940, Curry planned to begin work on rotunda murals as soon as a set of marble panels were removed to make room. The subject for these panels was to be the dangers of poor soil management. Kansas farmers balked at such an image housed in their Capitol. Opposition to Curry's work climaxed when the Kansas Council of Women protested the removal of the marble and issued the following statement:

"The murals do not portray the true Kansas. Rather than revealing a law-abiding progressive state, the artist has emphasized the freaks in its history - the tornadoes, and John Brown, who did not follow legal procedure." Under pressure from the public, the Kansas Legislature passed a resolution demanding that the marble panels not be removed and thus put an end to Curry's rotunda murals. "The eight panels in the rotunda which comprise the book itself I have not been allowed to accomplish because of the order of the Executive Committee forbidding the removal of eight small pieces of Italian marble. . .the work in the east and west stands as disjointed and un-united fragments. Because this project is uncompleted and does not represent my true idea, I am not signing these works," Curry said. Angered by the continual tension with the public and rejection by his home state, the artist left Kansas. On August 29, 1946, Curry died of a heart attack at the age of 48, having never signed his famous statehouse murals.

See images of Curry's statehouse studies.

Entry: Kansas State Capitol - Curry murals

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: April 2011

Date Modified: June 2011

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