American Workman by Maxwell King and Louise Lippincott

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

American Workman
The Life and Art of John Kane
by Maxwell King and Louise Lippincott
University of Pittsburgh Press, 288 pp., hardcover $40

American Workman: The Life and Art of John Kane reconsiders the legacy of a prominent, self-taught Pittsburgh artist. Kane was a pugnacious, heavy-drinking Scottish immigrant who toiled for 40 years in mines, steel mills and railyards before achieving breakthrough success as a painter at the age of 67. After losing a leg in a train accident, he found work painting boxcars, houses and amusement park rides. In his spare time, he created pastoral vistas and portraits, favoring scenes from his native Scotland or industrial landscapes that celebrated the overlooked grandeur of western Pennsylvania. When his Scene from the Scottish Highlands was accepted into the Carnegie International Exhibition of 1927, the controversial inclusion of a housepainter in this elite showcase for modern art launched Kane’s artistic career.

Kane’s improbable rise has often been presented as the realization of a rags-to-riches American dream, with the artist cast as working-class hero whose innate eye for beauty elevated his life and labor above the norm. American Workman demonstrates how this clichéd narrative disguises the class and cultural politics that make Kane’s story truly exceptional. King and Lippincott’s authoritative retelling is organized into two parts: “The Life,” which written by King, details the artist’s biography and respectfully acknowledges a scholarly debt to early chroniclers while correcting numerous factual errors that originated with their work. In the book’s second half on “The Art,” Lippincott similarly analyzes the mythology applied to Kane’s artwork by the dealers and critics who profited from positioning him as a naïve American master.

What emerges from this well-researched and beautifully illustrated book is a fresh vision of Kane’s complexity as artistic antihero, a hardworking man whose determination to penetrate rarefied circles raises important questions about how we value the relationship between manual labor and fine art.

Erin Pauwels
Temple University