John Kane: America's Henri Rousseau

"Genius Has Been Discovered!" declared a cover story in the Pittsburgh Press (Oct. 15, 1927) regarding John Kane (1860-1934), a first-time participant in the highly esteemed Carnegie International. The Scottish-born, self-taught artist, Kane, a Pittsburgh resident, had worked as a coal miner and a block paver before he lost his leg in a train accident. Unable to find work, he became a railroad watchman and then a freight car painter which is how he learned to mix paint colors. Kane failed in three attempts to gain admission to art school so he taught himself by painting over photographs. This is how he found work as a portraitist and painted over enlarged photographs of his subjects. Kane summed up what he learned about the portrait business: "It wasn't the way she looked. It wasn't even how she thought she looked. It was only the way she wanted to look and so, was pleased to have a picture like that."*

In 1927 when his painting, Scene from the Scottish Highlands, c. 1927 (Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh) was accepted by the annual exhibition at the Carnegie, Kane was employed as a house painter. His painting sold to a juror for $50 and with that his career as an artist began when he was 67 years old. Subsequent invitations to participate at the Carnegie and inclusion in group exhibitions at the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art and the Museum of Modern Art led Kane to the ultimate prize: the sale of his painting Homestead, c. 1929? (Museum of Modern Art) to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948).  

Valentine Dudensing was aware of Kane's ascending career and had even made tentative plans to hold what would have been the artist's first solo exhibition at the Valentine Gallery in 1931. Unfortunately Dudensing cancelled the exhibition at the last minute. This misstep was corrected soon after the artist's death in August 1934 when the dealer signed on to represent the artist's estate. He organized a memorial exhibition that opened at the Valentine Gallery in January 1935. Because Kane's work was reminiscent of Henri Rousseau's, modern art collectors: Dr. Albert C. Barnes, Walter P. Chrysler Jr., Adelaide Milton de Groot, and Robert H. Tannahill all bought paintings from Dudensing. In the coming years other prominent clients of the Valentine Gallery acquired Kane's work: Lee Ault, Aline Barnsdall, Cecil Beaton, Stephen C. Clark, Morton R. Goldsmith, Henry R. Luce, Mrs. William Paley, Duncan Phillips, the Albright Art Gallery (later the Albright-Knox Art Gallery), and the Museum of Modern Art.

Dudensing organized exhibitions of John Kane's paintings at the Department of Labor, Washington, D.C. (1935), and at museums in Detroit (1936) and Chicago (1939). When he closed the Valentine Gallery in 1947, Dudensing arranged for representation of the Kane estate to be transferred to Knoedler Galleries.

John Kane, Painter, compiled by Leon Anthony Arkus, (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1971), 59.

From My Studio Window , 1932 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot, 1967)

From My Studio Window, 1932 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot, 1967)