John Kane. Through Coleman Hollow up the Allegheny Valley. c. 1928. Oil on canvas, 30 x 38 5/8" (76.2 x 98.1 cm). Given anonymously

“You don’t have to go far to find beauty,” said self-proclaimed “American workman” John Kane. “It is all over, everywhere, even in the street on which you work. All you need is observation.”1 Kane’s life and art are inherently bound to his dedication to labor. Even when discussing his paintings, he referred to them as his “art work,” and in doing so contextualized his creations as a product of effort, just like the roads he paved and the steel he poured.

Born in West Calder, Scotland, in 1860, Kane started making art at an early age, writing that one of his first memories was of a scolding he received from a schoolmaster after he was caught drawing rather than listening in class.2 Steadfast in his love of making, Kane did not allow this moment of disapproval to dampen his interest, and he continued to make art through his adolescence. By age nine Kane was working in the mines of Calder, continuing his schooling in the evenings for as long as he was able, before shifting to working longer hours to help support his family. In 1879, 19-year-old Kane and his brother Patrick (a frequent subject for the artist, as seen in The Campbells Are Coming [1932]) set out for America in search of opportunity. The life that followed took Kane from city to industrial city along the East Coast, where he worked as a coal miner, steel worker, and road paver. All the while he never stopped making art, using the changing settings and shifting cast of characters around him as subjects for his work.

“If an artist puts his soul in his work mine was there in the reflection of the light on the hills,” Kane wrote of his landscape Through the Coleman Hollow, Up the Allegheny Valley (c. 1928).3 Having never formally studied art, Kane’s artistic method was shaped predominantly through practice and engaging with nature, with the artist explaining, “I study it all out. I puzzle and figure and work at how a painting should look. By and by it comes to me.” Kane’s recollections of his works include details of him frequenting the landscapes he would make his subjects, sometimes just to observe and other times with painting supplies in hand. Kane considered this regular surveying an essential component of his process, wanting to “paint life exactly as I see it.”4

Though an avid chronicler of the American landscape, Kane never abandoned his Highland roots, frequently depicting uniquely Scottish scenes within his works. Scotch Day at Kennywood (1933), for example, captures a lively festival scene, complete with fairgoers, a bagpiper, and a band of Highland dancers. Set in Kennywood, an amusement park just east of Pittsburgh, these Scotch Day celebrations are in fact a testament to the proud national identity of those who, like Kane, immigrated from their Scottish homeland. Though it might seem contradictory that an artist who is so often identified as an “American” would maintain such a strong embrace of their homeland, art historian Kathleen Jentelson argues that Kane’s rise to success became “emblematic of a kind of mobility that had long been associated with the possibilities of life on US soil.”5 Put simply, Kane became the “personification of the American Dream.”6

Kane’s process of observation extended beyond landscapes and into portraiture, as seen in his acclaimed Self-Portrait (1929), which he referred to as “John Kane in the Looking Glass.” The artist recalled carefully studying his reflection in his wife’s vanity, a detail of which can be found in the decorative arches looming above the crown of Kane’s head.7 The resulting work is a frank portrayal of a body worn by age and years of hard labor. Highlighting every vein and muscle with a cast of dim light, Kane deftly sculpts the sinew of his own form, forgoing vanity to honestly depict the man before him, a subject he had studied throughout his life.

“The artist knows what he is doing and why he does it,” Kane wrote. “That’s why he is an artist.”8 Despite receiving little attention until after his work was accepted into the Carnegie Institutes International Exhibition in 1927, Kane never questioned his identity as an artist. The circumstances of his life and the demands of his occupations simply led him to refine his artistic capabilities without formal training. He found inspiration in his daily life—studying the landscapes of his home, the faces of his family and friends—and in so doing illustrated the life of an “American workman.”

Emily Olek, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2024

  1. John Kane, Marie McSwigan, and Frank Crowninshield. Sky Hooks : The Autobiography of John Kane (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1938), 82.

  2. Kane, McSwigan, and Crowninshield, Sky Hooks : The Autobiography of John Kane, 21.

  3. An excerpt from a letter from John Kane to collector Eugene Williams, as printed in Sky Hooks : The Autobiography of John Kane, 17.

  4. Kane, McSwigan, and Crowninshield, 172.

  5. Katherine Jentleson. Gatecrashers : The Rise of the Self-Taught Artist in America. (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2020), 69.

  6. Jane Kallir, “Rethinking Grandma Moses,” in Grandma Moses in the 21st Century, 18.

  7. Leon Anthony Arkus, John Kane, Leon Anthony Arkus, and Marie McSwigan, John Kane, Painter (Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971), 129.

  8. Kane, McSwigan, and Crowninshield, 172.

Wikipedia entry
John Kane (August 19, 1860 — August 10, 1934) was an American painter celebrated for his skill in Naïve art. He was the first self-taught American painter in the 20th century to be recognized by a museum. When, on his third attempt, his work was admitted to the 1927 Carnegie International Exhibition, he attracted considerable attention from the media, which initially suspected that his success was a prank. He inadvertently paved the way for other self-taught artists, from Grandma Moses to Outsider Art. Today Kane is remembered for his landscape paintings of industrial Pittsburgh, many of which are held by major museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, Carnegie Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Comment on works: Landscapes; Cityscape; Allegory
Artist, Naive Artist, Landscapist, Painter
John Kane, John I Kane, paul kane
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License


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