The Man Who Ran Away With The Circus: John Steuart Curry

Andréa Fernandes

At the request of reader Meredith Tusha, today's "Feel Art Again" features John Steuart Curry (1897-1946) and his mural "Tragic Prelude."

1. "Tragic Prelude" is John Steuart Curry's most well-known mural, in part due to the controversy surrounding it. Curry was commissioned by a group of newspaper editors to paint murals at the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka. He began the mural in 1937, but was met with resistance as soon as his plans for the murals were made known to the public. Critics found fault with both his subject matter and how he chose to depict it, pointing out "all of the mistakes Curry made in the mural." Curry was so "dejected and heart-broken" as a result that he left the murals unsigned and left Kansas for Wisconsin.

2. According to Curry's widow, the main reason the artist died so young, at age 48, was due to the heart-break he suffered over the Capitol murals. Although he had left Kansas for Wisconsin again—he had lived there previously, as well—Curry was buried back home in Kansas. A mere 42 years after Curry's death, the Kansas legislature offered an official apology for how Curry had been treated and purchased all of the drawings related to the murals.

3. In 2007, a Curry painting was re-introduced to the public after 40 years. "Youth Helps Build a Better World" had hung in a Wisconsin State Fair Park livestock barn until the 1960s, when the building was demolished. The painting was rescued from the dumpster by a member of the demolition team. After 8 months of "painstaking" cleaning and restoration, the painting was unveiled at the Museum of Wisconsin Art.

4. Curry began drawing and painting in youth; he even penned a political cartoon at age 7! He attended Kansas City Art Institute, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Geneva College, and traveled to Paris to study under Vasily Shukhayev, a Russian Academician. Before focusing his art on Kansas and Wisconsin, Curry spent 7 years around New York City working as an illustrator for publications including Boys' Life and The Saturday Evening Post.

5. While most people only joke about running away with the circus, John Steuart Curry really did. Curry spent six weeks touring with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, during which time he sketched such acts as "Baby Ruth "“ Fat Girl" and painted "The Flying Cadonas."

A larger version of "Tragic Prelude" is available here. Fans should check out the Smithsonian's collection of John Steuart Curry papers. "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.