History Center Exhibit Explores the Life and Work of Pittsburgh Painter John Kane | Entertainment
PITTSBURGH – The history of Pittsburgh in the late 19th century and early 20th century is filled with tales of immigrant hardship, punishing labor, lives torn apart by violence, dysfunction and tragedy.
In this regard, John Kane might well have been the prototype Pittsburgher of that era. A Scottish immigrant who came to the Pittsburgh area in search of employment, Kane held jobs as a miner, steelworker, and street finisher. His left leg was severed in a railroad accident shortly after he turned 30, he drank to excess, lost a young son, attempted suicide, endured a rocky marriage and a stretch in a hospital psychiatrist and has been in trouble with the law on at least one occasion.
What set Kane apart from the thousands of other unskilled laborers trying to make a living in southwestern Pennsylvania was his uncommon talent with a paintbrush.
Without any formal training, Kane began sketching landscapes on the side of railroad cars while drawing a paycheck from the Pressed Steel Car Company in McKees Rocks. He focused mainly on his surroundings and the memories of his youth in Scotland. Prior to his death, Kane’s work received some recognition. One of his paintings found a place in the Carnegie Museum of Art‘s contemporary art exhibition, the Carnegie International, in 1927, and the story of the unschooled elderly workman and his paintings gained traction at national scale. Within a few years, his primitive and colorful works were the subject of an exhibition in New York.
Nevertheless, when tuberculosis claimed him in 1934 at the age of 73, he left his family a bank account of $4,000 and 100 of his paintings.
Many of these paintings are now in the hands of museums and private collectors, and the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh has collected 37 for its exhibit, “Pittsburgh’s John Kane: The Life and Art of an American Workman.” , which opened last month and will be there until Sunday, January 8, 2023. The paintings come from institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. According to Andy Masich, President and CEO of the Heinz History Center, “Pittsburgh’s John Kane: The Life and Art of an American Workman” is not just a showcase of the artist’s work, but a window into the life in Pittsburgh when it was in its prime. the most gravelly and, without doubt, the most dangerous.
“It’s a special exhibit, not just an art exhibit,” Masich said. “It focuses on the man, his life, his time and his context. … This is a rare opportunity for the people of Pittsburgh to see their history come to life in art.
Kane was born in West Calder, Scotland as John Cain in 1860. He came to Pittsburgh when he was around 20, originally settling in Braddock. Before too long, he emigrated to Connellsville, where he worked in the area’s coke ovens. There were also stints in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee, but Kane eventually returned to — and stayed in — Pittsburgh.
Kane arrived “just when Pittsburgh was beginning to explode as an industrial center,” said Louise Lippincott, former curator of fine arts at the Carnegie Museum of Art and guest curator of “Pittsburgh’s John Kane.” “He took everything that was available to him and made it his art.”
Classified a century after his emergence as an “outsider” or “naive” artist, Kane’s work is often included in the same category as such figures as Grandma Moses and Horace Pippin. His paintings tended to focus on sites and people close to him, be it the Strip District, the Monongahela River or a celebration of Scottish heritage in Kennywood.
Kane himself once said, in reference to Pittsburgh, “I helped build its steel mills and its houses. I paved its streets, fabricated its steel and painted its houses. It’s my city; why shouldn’t I paint it?
The midpoint of southwestern Pennsylvania during Kane’s time comes to life in the exhibit thanks to a recreated boxcar, and it also features artifacts from the artist’s life, including the whistle and flute that he carried with him and six photographs he took.
On Wednesday, June 15, Lippincott and Maxwell King, the former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation, will be at the History Center to talk about the exhibit as well as the book they wrote, “American Workman: The Life and Art of John Kane”, recently published by University of Pittsburgh Press. A book signing will follow the discussion.