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John Steuart Curry's Negro Head, discussed by Marjorie Searl:
Before you is John Steuart Curry’s painting entitled Negro Head. This portrait, painted around 1927, is of the head and shoulders of an African American young man. In this oil on canvas, the young man is larger than he would have been in real life. His profile is the entire subject of the work, which is roughly 24 inches high by 18 inches wide. The young man’s head and neck, turned at an angle toward our left, take up about three-quarters of the painting. His large eyes are looking out in the distance to our left.
The background is painted with large brush strokes in warm, silvery-golden colors, which contrast with the young man’s dark skin color and accentuate his profile. He has short black, tight curls that closely hug the rounded shape of his head. His smooth, large forehead and thick black eyebrows draw attention to his eyes. Because his head is turned at an angle to our left, we only see about three-quarters of his right eye and his delicate, long, black eye lashes extend into the light background of the painting. His left eye, which we see in its entirety, matches the gaze of the right eye. His eyes are deeply set into his high cheekbones and draw us in. His lips are closed and his facial expression is relaxed. We see only the shoulders and opened collar of his gold-colored shirt.
The portrait is set in a tiered Art Deco-style frame, which repeats the same silvery-golden tones of the painting’s background. John Steuart Curry, an American painter, lived between 1897 and 1946. The Memorial Art Gallery acquired the painting in 2005 thanks to the Marion Stratton Gould Fund.
Research Curator Marjorie Searl speaks about this object.
This is Marjorie Searl speaking about the painting Negro Head by John Steuart Curry.
Often, the identity of an artist’s model is lost to us. That’s the case for this stunning 1927 portrait of a man. But, while we may not know who the model is, the painting tells us a great deal about John Steuart Curry’s identity as an artist at a turning point in his career. Notice the sculptural quality of the model’s head and facial features to see the skill with which Curry was learning to approach the human form, and how he accentuated the illusion of the head’s 3-dimensional quality by placing it against a flat background. The artist’s harmonious palette of warm browns and golds, accented with flecks of white, makes the painting glow and accentuates the sitter’s eyes, skin and lips. As Curry had studied in Europe the year before, the painting’s rich color may have been inspired by works by Old Masters like Titian and Rubens.
A number of drawings exist from this period in which Curry used African American men and women as models. Within the next decade, Curry would return to subjects from African American history, such as fugitive slaves and the abolitionist John Brown. With the creation of large murals for public buildings such as the Kansas State Capitol, as well as paintings of Midwestern scenes, he was soon considered part of the triumvirate of American Regionalists along with Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, whose masterpiece depicting a Texas boomtown done just two years after this painting by Curry, hangs nearby. These later works, done in response to political and social agendas and market demands, speak about Curry the Regionalist, the identity with which most people link him. Negro Head, on the other hand, stands as one of Curry’s purest efforts, created as an artist’s exploration of the elements of color, form, and texture.
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