Today, in preparation for my paper on John Steuart Curry, I read a bit of David Danbom’s Born in the Country: A History of Rural America. In the sections I am reading, Danbom focuses on the relationship between rural and urban populations. These populations exchanged both goods (i.e. agricultural products and industrial products) and ideas. While mass culture began to move into rural areas through the consumer products rural people sought, urbanites were worried about the welfare of rural areas, as they had always been an important source of American identity. The Country Life movement was made up of urbanites who took an active role in searching for ways to improve the conditions of rural life.
In my paper, I will need to situate Curry’s tenure at Madison within the history of the Country Life movement. Dean Christensen’s goals for bringing Curry to Madison are clearly in line with the goals of the Country Life movement. The Country Life movement was an important way in which modernity came to the countryside. Though Curry’s paintings of rural life are easily misidentified as nostalgic, his work actually reflects the tensions of the social change occurring in rural America.
Though the urban reformers working within the Country Life movement may well have been unrealistically nostalgic for rural life, their work was essential to bringing modern urban values to the countryside. Curry, too, was a part of this. Having lived on the East Coast and studied art in Paris, Curry would have been well versed in modern art and modernity in general. Through his interactions with the rural populations of Wisconsin, he was not only helping them to appreciate their own culture, but also serving as a vanguard for cosmopolitanism in the countryside.