Kane Was Able

1929 Self Portrait of John Kane, considered one of his masterpieces, resides in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

As rabid supporters  of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders gnash their teeth, it may be time to look at John Kane.


No, not John McCain. John Kane. Is he a candidate? No, he’s dead. Has been so since 1934.

Kane was a one-legged, uneducated laborer who picked up a paint brush late in life and did everything “wrong.” 

I bring up the Pittsburgh artist because the most common adjective used on social networks these days is “stupid.”

It may be just as common on television, but I don’t watch that.

“Stupid” describes other political camps in the least forgiving way possible. Although one would think you are born stupid, there is an underlying belief that others make you that way (college, parents, National Rifle Assn., etc.) And, you are just too  . . . too . . ., well, stupid to know any better.

A better word would be “naive.” (I am college-corrupted, so I know.)

The word is far more forgiving, but of course these are not forgiving times.

Naiveté was both celebrated and laughed at in the time of John Kane. In fact, it was his claim to fame.

Moving, Moving on Up

Kane was quite young when his peasant family moved from Ireland to Scotland. His father hoped to find good work to improve their lot. The boy was only 9 when he insisted he be permitted to quit school and go to work in a shale mine. Good thing he did because his father died the following year.

Mrs. Cain (spelling before Ellis Island)) then married a man who soon left for America to seek opportunity . In 1879,  19-year-old John followed and joined his stepfather in Pennsylvania.

“I was always on the lookout for better jobs,” Kane wrote in his autobiography. 

“The wages interested me the most. The amount of work, the hardness of it, the hours and all like that, didn’t worry me a bit.”

He worked in McKeesport, Connellsville and Braddock, and then went to Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

Kane labored for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, a tubing factory, a coal mine and a steel mill. He was a construction worker and street paver.

He was powerfully built,  so, if the economy was good, he always got hired. That ended  late one night after he returned to Braddock.

An unlit B&O train surprised Kane and companions as they cut across a rail yard.  He pushed a cousin out of the way, but Kane’s leg got caught and the train severed it five inches below the knee.

Takes Leg Loss in Stride

Recovery took months for the 31-year-old and he came to depend on charities like the Salvation Army.  He became so good at walking on a wooden leg, though, that few ever noticed a limp until his later years.

Still, he had trouble finding work. The B&O Railroad finally gave him a low-paying job as a night watchman.

At 37, Kane married Maggie Halloran. After the births of two daughters, he needed more money. Kane started painting railroad cars for the Pressed Steel Car Company in McKees Rocks.

“I . . . became in love with paint,” he wrote.

At noon, while others were eating, Kane painted  pictures on the sides of boxcars. He said the foreman didn’t mind as long he painted over the creations after the lunch break.

This is how the Bloomfield Bridge looked in 1934. This painting, "Crossing the Junction" can be seen in the Visible Storage Room" at the Heinz History Center where visitors can see objects not normally on display. You'll pass Santa's chair from Kauffman's on the way to the painting.

This is how the Bloomfield Bridge looked in 1934. “Crossing the Junction” is in the Visible Storage Room at the Heinz History Center where visitors can see objects not normally on display. You’ll pass Santa’s chair from Kaufmann’s on the way to the painting.

Door-to-Door Portrait Painting

Such early Kane paintings might be something to look for if you see old boxcars with blistering paint on a siding.

The boxcar business tailed off and Kane was again out of work. Then, his art career started.

He went door-to-door offering to paint people’s portraits.

That had been a common occupation before the invention of photography. Not any more.

Kane found few interested in a full-blown painted portrait. He soon discovered everyone had black-and-white photos of departed loved ones they wanted embellished with color. So, that’s what he did.

And he did well, making more money than he did later when he turned to original paintings.

However, Kane also turned to alcohol. He blamed it on the crushing loss of an infant son to typhoid fever.

He left his family for long periods, finally losing track of them altogether. After wandering around Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia for some years, Kane settled permanently in Pittsburgh, painting houses and doing carpentry.

Kane considered art school, but tuition was too high.

Learning Off the Shelf

Instead, he did what many Pittsburghers have done. He haunted Carnegie museums and libraries. Kane developed a vague awareness of the procedures and subjects of “fine” art.

He spent hours copying pictures from illustrated art books.

Now he showed naiveté.

Well before his time, artists learned by copying the works of masters. They even submitted those copies to exhibitions in the hopes of being recognized as an up and coming artist. Not any more. But Kane didn’t know that.

In 1925 and again in 1926, the local painter/handyman walked to Oakland and submitted copies of religious paintings to the Carnegie International exhibition. It was then the most important American forum for international contemporary art.

Rejected! Rejected!

Finally someone told him they would only consider original compositions.

"Scene From the Scottish Highlands" was accepted and praised by the Carnegie jury, catapulting Kane into an art celebrity.

“Scene From the Scottish Highlands” was accepted and praised by the Carnegie jury, making Kane an art celebrity.

Stunning Acceptance

In 1927, the art world and all of Pittsburgh was stunned when the Carnegie jury accepted and praised  “Scene From the Scottish Highlands” by a poor, unknown, uneducated house painter living in a tenement in the Strip District.

No works from established local artists were accepted. It was the first time a living self-taught artist had been recognized by the American art establishment.

The local press rolled its eyes, as it always did when the vagaries of art were involved. Reporters sniffed around his door for scandal and human interest stories.

Kane became a national celebrity. At 68, he painted away in his shabby Strip District studio.

Maggie, living in West Virginia, re-established contact with her now-famous, apparently sober husband.

His work was classified as “naive.”

That’s because he lacked those skills and conventions people went to academies to learn. He didn’t yet know objects get smaller and duller as they recede into a composition. Somehow that made his paintings reveal something more honest. This was cause for celebration and celebrity.

His work was reminiscent of Henri Rousseau, a celebrated French painter.

"The Sleeping Gypsy" was painted in 1897 by Henri Rousseau.  The Carnegie jurors thought Kane's work was similarly naive.

“The Sleeping Gypsy” was painted in 1897 by Henri Rousseau. The Carnegie jurors thought Kane’s work was similarly naive.

In the next several years Kane participated in four more Internationals. He won prizes in the Annual Exhibition of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh. He exhibited at Harvard University, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and The Museum of Modern Art.

By 1930 he had sold paintings to  Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr. and John Dewey, chairman of the department of philosophy at Columbia University.

“If I had tried the world over for an exhibition to show my work I couldn’t have found a better one than that International, right here in Pittsburgh,” Kane said.

John Kane and his wife, Maggie, in the Strip District studio.

John Kane and his wife, Maggie, in the Strip District studio.

He was not naive about fame.

“I have lived too long the life of the poor to attach undue importance to the honors of the art world or to any honors that come from man and not from God.”

That was what kept reporters at his door. There was the irony of his enduring poverty amid prestige and artistic “success.”  

His death from tuberculosis in 1934 was a garish media event. Photographers recorded the final moments of the emaciated, semi-conscious man, while reporters daily debated how much money he had.

A New York newspaper lamented that Kane’s paintings of Pittsburgh, “his beloved city,” were packed up by the dozens, shipped to New York and sold immediately to people who did not know the landscape.

So, what does that have to do with Hillary and Donald and Bernie?

Well, maybe their followers should take a breath and pause to contemplate a naive painting.  Maybe stupidity is not so bad.

"Scots Day at Kenywood" sold at auction in 1981 for $23,000. That is the highest price I have found for a Kane painting. His works in museums undoubtedly would fetch much higher amounts. You can still get Kane paintings for as little as $600 at auction, though.

“Scots Day at Kenywood” sold at auction in 1981 for $23,000. That is the highest price I have found for a Kane painting. His works in museums undoubtedly would fetch much higher amounts. You can still get Kane paintings for as little as $600 at auction, though.


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