A century after his breakthrough, a pioneering self-taught Pittsburgh painter returns to spotlight
Andrew Carnegie was an impoverished immigrant from a village in Scotland who was a child laborer in Pittsburgh before becoming the richest man in the world. Andrew Warhola was a son of working-class Pittsburgh who turned himself into the world’s most famous artist.
There’s another Pittsburgher whose story combines elements of both — though with considerably more drinking, fistfights, and manual labor than the other two combined, and a lot less money. His name was John Kane, and though he’s no longer a household name even in Pittsburgh, he’s getting his due this year, with a new book about him and two major museum exhibits.
Nearly 100 years ago, the Scottish immigrant house-painter became the first self-taught artist of the 20th century to be exhibited in big museums and receive attention from serious collectors.
“American Workman: The Life and Art of John Kane” (University of Pittsburgh Press), by Maxwell King and Louise Lippincott, is the first new book about him in 50 years. On May 21, the Heinz History Center will open “Pittsburgh’s John Kane: The Life & Art of An American Workman,” which seeks to illuminate the Pittsburgh of Kane’s time through his story and his paintings. And in October, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art will host “Gatecrashers: The Rise of the Self-Taught Artist in America,” a nationally touring exhibit that places Kane in the vanguard of a group of artists who changed American culture in the mid-20th century.
Kane was born “John Cain” in West Calder, Scotland, in 1860. (He became “Kane” only well into middle age, after a clerical error in the States.) His schooling was limited, mostly because by age 10 he was working full-time in a shale mine.
At 19, he followed family to the U.S. and settled in Braddock, and into a life of hard labor in a regional economy dominated by heavy industry. This was the era of Pittsburgh as “hell with the lid off,” and Kane worked at Carnegie’s own Edgar Thomson Works, in area coal mines, and as a street paver in the city (when the latter job required setting Belgian block by hand). Kane, a devout Catholic, enthusiastic amateur boxer, and practiced consumer of alcohol, also spent a few years working in Southern states before returning to Pittsburgh.
His life changed one night in 1891, when an accident in a rail yard cost him his left leg at the knee. Kane turned to painting houses and railroad boxcars, a path that led to him further developing the knack for art he’d had since childhood. According to “American Workman,” he didn’t start painting portraits and landscapes in earnest until about age 50. But his luminous, highly detailed, if technically raw images seemed to capture something essential about the region.
Kane’s life was complicated. According to “American Workman,” in Pittsburgh alone he lived in at least 15 different locations. At one point, his wife, Maggie, had him committed, probably because of his alcoholism. In 1904, his infant son died, and Kane began a period of nearly a quarter-century as an itinerant laborer, when he was mostly separated from his wife and two daughters. But Maggie came back after Kane’s success at the Carnegie International, and they remained together until his death, in 1934.
“American Workman” co-author Maxwell King, a former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, first learned of Kane some 20 years ago, after moving to Pittsburgh to head the Heinz Endowments.
“What captured my attention about Kane at first, to be honest, was not his art, but his life story,” said King, who also chairs the board of the Pittsburgh Community Broadcast Corp., which operates WESA. “It seemed to me these parallels between the character of Pittsburgh and the character of Kane.”
“Everything Kane did, he just drove himself to a high standard of excellence,” King added. “He was very focused, very hardworking, and very determined, and those are Pittsburgh characteristics.”
“American Workman,” lavishly illustrated with 86 color illustrations, is the first book on Kane since “John Kane, Painter,” a 1971 work by Leon Arkus, then director of the Carnegie Museum of Art.
King’s contributions to “American Workman” are mostly the early, biographical chapters. They build on “Sky Hooks,” Kane’s autobiography, which was ghostwritten by Marie McSwigan, the Pittsburgh newspaper journalist who interviewed Kane more than anyone else. King’s co-author, Louise Lippincott, wrote the new book’s later chapters, which assess Kane’s artwork in depth. Lippincott is a former head curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art, which houses the largest collection of Kane paintings in the world.
Kane’s rise to fame was the result of historical circumstance as much as his own talent and persistence. He submitted paintings to the Carnegie International for two years before one was finally accepted. But his breakthrough, in 1927, came thanks to Andrew Dasburg, a member of the exhibit jury. Dasburg, a painter and world-traveling sophisticate, was a proponent of work by “primitive,” or self-taught artists, a field then gaining popularity in the U.S., in large part in response to the success of self-taught French artist Henri Rousseau. Kane’s breakthrough painting was “Scene from the Scottish Highlands,” an image of two young boys in traditional costume merrily dancing, with a bagpiper in the background.
Prior to Kane, self-taught American artists had been limited to smaller shows and venues less grand than the Carnegie.
“He was really the original gate-crasher, because he was the first self-taught American artist — who was alive, too — who was getting into these major shows and getting the attention of these major American art collectors like Abby Rockefeller, or Duncan Philips,” said Katherine Jentleson, the curator of folk and self-taught art at the High Museum of Atlanta.
“Gatecrashers” is the title of Jentleson’s book about self-taught artists; it’s also the name of her museum’s touring exhibit featuring Kane, Horace Pippin, and Grandma Moses.
The existence of “Sky Hooks” alone testifies to Kane’s celebrity; Jentleson said he was one of the few American artists of any type to have a mass-market biography about him published. Kane never got rich from his art, and his artistic reputation seems to have suffered little long-term damage from a brief scandal over the revelation, in 1931, that many of his works were based on painted-over photographs. (Though the practice wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today, it upset some purists at the time). But Kane’s rise came courtesy of the search for an American Rousseau, Jentleson said, his posthumous decline was due to the downgrading of regional schools of painting, and the erasure of self-taught artists from the narrative of contemporary art at mid-century, when abstract expressionism was the rage.
The rise and fall of his celebrity notwithstanding, Kane’s art abides, said “American Workman” co-author Lippincott. For instance, while some might find his paintings merely picturesque, through her research she learned there is much more to them, and not just the astounding level of detail that — fittingly enough for a career laborer — sometimes includes every brick in every building, and every paving stone on every street.
In an interview, Lippincott cites Kane’s paintings of Coleman Hollow, as seen from a site south of the Allegheny River looking north toward the hills of Blawnox. Landmarks small but visible include the sprawling if short-lived National Amusement Park and, much less conspicuously, a complex of brick buildings including the Allegheny City Poor House and the Allegheny County Workhouse and Inebriate Asylum. The juxtaposition is no accident, said Lippincott, especially because Kane loved amusement parks but also, at a low point in his life, did at least one stretch in the latter complex.
“All of Kane’s landscapes, you are supposed to travel through them as a wanderer with your eyes, and these are essentially narrative and moral landscapes where your choice of direction means something. And where your choice of destination means something,” said Lippincott. “There’s a story embedded in every single one of them, and every one of them is worth finding out.”
Lippincott likens Kane’s work to that of Edward Hopper (himself an admirer of Kane’s paintings).
“He was looking at parts of life that were not terribly glamorous. He was looking at the edges of society. And he was painting those people’s lives,” she said. “He was not a one-hit wonder. … He’s lasted, and that’s really important.”
An Artistic Legacy
Kane has never left the public eye entirely, of course. The unflinching self-portrait that adorns the cover of “American Workman” hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. Jentleson calls it “one of the best, greatest paintings of the 20th century. … It just like knocks you off your feet because of how directly he’s staring at you, and how intense his depiction of his body is.”
Some 40 years ago, WQED TV made a biographical drama about Kane, starring legendary Pittsburgh-based actor Bingo O’Malley. And then there’s the Carnegie, whose collection includes 18 Kane paintings, and which always has a couple on display. (Currently, it’s the self-portrait “Touching Up” and his double-sided “Gettysburg Address,” a tribute to Abraham Lincoln, backed with a farm scene.)
“I think of Kane as being one of the few artists where this museum and that artist’s career are so intertwined,” said Akemi May, an assistant curator of fine art.
Kane’s family has been involved, too. While his descendants no longer owns any of his works, his lone surviving grandchild, Jackie Elder, said her mother – Kane’s younger daughter, Margaret – worked hard to advance his legacy. “It was a very big thing in her life to keep her father promoted, ’cause she knew that he had such terrific talent,” said Elder, who was born the year after John Kane died, and now lives in Jacksonville, Fla.
Kane also has ardent fans in Pittsburgh.
“He’s an heroic figure to me, yes. Because he overcomes so much,” said art collector Pat McArdle, who decades ago was the first person to talk up Kane to future biographer Max King. “He works so hard, overcomes poverty, losing a limb, losing a son, which set him off drinking for 20 years. His wife leaves him with their two daughters, they don’t even see each other for 20 some years. He looks around the grayness of Pittsburgh and sees a glorious day like today. Blue skies, puffy clouds, and — his spirit was just so strong.”
A few years ago, McArdle started a campaign to name the rebuilt Greenfield Bridge after Kane. That effort failed, though McArdle said he might try again with the Charles Anderson Bridge, in Schenley Park. At his home, in Edgewood, McArdle sleeps with reproductions of two life-sized Kane portraits under his bed. One is Kane’s rendering of his brother, Patrick, in full Scottish dress and playing bagpipes. The other, also 6 feet tall, is a nearly nude self-portrait Kane painted over with the image of Patrick. McArdle found a small-scale reproduction of the original, enlarged it to size, and asked acclaimed Pittsburgh-based artist Robert Qualters to adorn it.
Qualters, who was born in 1934 — just a few months before Kane died — is also a Kane admirer; in 2017, Carlow University Art Gallery mounted “Kane/Qualters: My Pittsburgh,” an exhibit pairing the two men’s work. Handed McArdle’s reproduction, he retouched the image only slightly, with some impressionistic accents. Kane “always impressed me, and we have some of the same ideas about painting Pittsburgh,” Qualters said. “It’s a natural kind of admiration.”
It features personal effects, including Kane’s beloved tin whistle, as well as previously unseen photographs, and three dozen of Kane’s paintings. The idea is to use Kane’s story as a lens to bring the Pittsburgh of his era to life.
“So he takes that anonymous worker that so many people share that lineage in the region, and he gives it a real story in his words and his remembrances and the art that he generated,” says museum curator Anne Madarasz. “It allows us to really talk about how the art relates to the world in which it was created.”
“Pittsburgh’s John Kane” opens May 21.