Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 29, No. 3, Summer 2009, pp. 259
In this multidimensional study of a single painting, Hoover and the Flood, art historian Charlie Eldredge asks, "Why was [John Steuart] Curry, an artist generally associated with midwestern landscape and genre subjects drawn from his Kansas upbringing, depicting a subject from the Mississippi Delta? Why was he tackling a subject of national rather than regional or simply personal consequence?" He finds answers in politics, in Curry's artistic ambitions and sense of social responsibility, and in popular and literary interest in the enduring power of the nation's rivers. The result will interest scholars of 1930s regionalism, whatever their discipline.
In an accessible style, Eldredge suggests that after controversy derailed Curry's historical murals for the Topeka, Kansas, statehouse, Curry turned to national media to bring his version of what Van Wyck Brooks called the "usable past," narrative art capable of creating a "community spirit" in the face of modern perils, to a broad audience. In this case, Life Magazine in 1940 commissioned Curry, known for painting Kansas storms, to portray the Mississippi flood of 1927, which covered 26,000 square miles and, when levees broke at 145 points, killed 246 people. Herbert Hoover directed relief efforts, and his success contributed to his election as President in 1928. Life publisher Henry Luce, a fellow Republican, presumably selected the subject to redeem Hoover's reputation and his policy of relying on privatecharity for relief.