John Kane

John Kane (1860-1934) was a Scottish-born American primitive painter who specialized in landscapes and scenes of the industrial environment in and around Pittsburgh, Pa.

John Kane was born in West Calder, Scotland, and as a teen-ager worked in the coal mines. After he arrived in America in 1879, he again worked as a miner and also as a street paver, carpenter, house painter, and lumber cutter. He settled in Pittsburgh and by 1890 had begun to draw in his spare time. He started attending art classes in the various cities where he was working, but each time he was forced to quit because of poverty. About the turn of the century, he lost his leg in a railway accident and had to give up his arduous jobs as a laborer.

Kane supported himself, in part, by painting freight cars and doing the lettering on the sides. Later he colored photograph enlargements. Often, he would use photographs as the original stimulus for some of his paintings. When he first began to paint, he submitted, as originals, paintings done right over enlarged photographs without knowing that this was unethical. In 1924 he submitted a painting to the Pittsburgh Carnegie Exhibition, but it was rejected, partly because it had been based closely upon a photograph.

About 1915 Kane began painting subjects based on his memories of Scotland and his impressions of the region about Pittsburgh. This work is marked by bright colors, a feeling for pattern, and a naiveté of handling in which sophisticated devices such as perspective and modeling are not attempted. His paintings are imbued with an attitude of affection for the people and places pictured.

One of Kane's most memorable paintings is his selfportrait (1929). The work shows the artist half-length, nude from the waist up, staring fixedly ahead at the spectator. He flexes his muscles, his fists meeting at the waist, his elbows jutting to the sides. The rigidity of the pose and the almost absolute symmetry of the design, with three concentric arches above the head, create a hieratic image of tension and power.

Recognition came to Kane late in life. With the support of another painter, who was a member of the jury of the Carnegie Exhibition, he began to be exhibited. In 1927 he was accepted in the Carnegie Exhibition, and his first oneman show was held in 1931, when he was over 70 years old. In 1936 his first one-man show abroad was held post-humously in London.


Further Reading on John Kane

John Kane, Painter, edited by Leon A. Arkus (1971), reprints the artist's autobiography; it also includes a catalogue raisonné. Sidney Janis, They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the Twentieth Century (1942), contains quotations from Kane and some biographical material on him.