John Brown

Click image to enlarge

John Brown
John Steuart Curry
Lithograph on off-white wove paper
14 3/4 x 10 7/8 in.
Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection

Look at the man at the center of this lithograph by John Steuart Curry—his glaring eyes, furrowed brow, and open mouth suggest he is angry and yelling. The weapons on his belt and his pose indicate power. And indeed, John Brown was a passionate abolitionist who organized with his countrymen to fight against slavery. In this print, Brown towers above everyone, including the African American man in the lower left. Note the covered wagons of pioneers moving west in the background, the flat landscape, and the tornado—all of these details suggest that the setting is Kansas.

By 1855, Kansas had become a hotbed of conflict between abolitionists and pro-slavery pioneers. John Brown arrived that year to defend the free soil settlements from pro-slavery forces. Days after the town of Lawrence, Kansas, was attacked by a group of pro-slavery pioneers, Brown and his followers responded with violence of their own, murdering pro-slavery settlers. Later, Brown led an attack on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in an attempt to trigger and arm a slave insurrection. The tornado and dark sky in the print evoke John Brown’s anger and violent tendencies, but also foreshadow the brutal Civil War to come.       

This is not the only image of John Brown by Curry. Curry, a Kansas native, made this print while painting a mural for the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka that featured a similar likeness of Brown. The mural was created between 1937 and 1942, a time when the country looked back on its past to weather the financial and agricultural calamities of the Great Depression.

1. John Brown was viewed as a hero by some and an unstable, violent villain by others. Does Curry present him as a hero or villain? What in the lithograph makes you think this?

2. Why do you think the artist chose to include the black man as he did? How would the lithograph’s message be different if he weren’t there?

3. The artist used a process (lithography) that allowed him to make and sell many copies (prints) of his image of John Brown at an affordable price. Why might he have wanted to do this?

Further reading:
Kansas State Historical Society and the University of Kansas. “John Brown: 1800-1859.” Territorial Kansas.

Kansas Historical Society. “Kansas State Capital—Curry Murals.” Kansaspedia.

©Terra Foundation for American Art