Today I continued reading Danbom’s Born in the Country. Yesterday I read about the first two decades of the 21st century which were the golden age of American farming. Increased immigration and urban population combined with stagnant agricultural productivity meant that farmers’ incomes were as high as they had ever been or would be for a long time. In these years, urban middle class progressive reformers set their sights upon improving rural living conditions in the form of the Country Life movement. Country Lifers chiefly sought to impact rural culture through education, by consolidating rural schools and controlling curriculums, and through extension efforts to bring improved farming techniques to farmers.
In the 1920s, Danbom argues that urban views towards rural people began to change. As more Americans were further away from farms, urban people increasingly looked down upon rural people. This is the context in which Curry first started to exhibit his paintings. Early critical praise came from urbanites who congratulated Curry (who was then living on the East Coast) for pointing out the failings of his native Kansas. Curry, in turn, was seen by enlightened Kansans as a poor cultural ambassador who reinforced stereotypes.
I will need to reconcile this with Curry’s time at Madison. Arriving in 1936, he was in Madison well after the height of the Country Life movement. I know, however, that at the very least pockets of the Country Life movement still existed in Wisconsin, because Curry was involved in the Country Life Association’s annual conferences. This gets at one of the key things I want to answer about Curry’s work and his time at Madison. To what degree was his work founded on nostalgia and to what degree was it based upon a pragmatic desire to bring rural people into touch with modernity?