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Morewood Heights

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Morewood Heights

Artist: John Kane (American, 1860 - 1934)

Date: 1931-1933
Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall: 23 x 28in. (58.4 x 71.1cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'John Kane'
Credit Line: Gift of Mrs. James Lowery
Object number: 82.51
Text Entries

It is more than fifty years since John Kane’s death and in that half century Pittsburgh has changed dramatically. Yet, there is nothing of the past about Kane’s cityscapes: they bear the stamp of the essential Pittsburgh. Kane’s vision is our vision; it is of our day.

Of the 160 or so paintings attributed to John Kane, fully a third represent Pittsburgh or its immediate environs, a rich testimony to the artist’s affection for his adopted city and the compatibility he enjoyed with its hills and valleys, its bridges and railroads. There are even those who accuse Kane of creating Pittsburgh in his own image.

At the left of Morewood Heights we overlook a section of Carnegie-Mellon University; to the right are the stately old residences of the neighborhood for which the picture was named. Consciously or unconsciously, Kane often included Pittsburgh’s Catholic churches in his city portraits—in this instance St. Paul’s Cathedral at the far left. Still another thematic recurrence are the plumes of smoke issuing from building chimneys and factory stacks. Here, the white wintry smoke belies the lush foliage and wild flowers that abound in the foreground.

Kane relished painting roller-coaster hills with strong horizontal planes of lights and darks to provide depth and visual movement. His heavy, dark-undersided clouds parallel the terrain below to further accentuate the horizontality of the composition. In this painting the paler foliage contrasts with the darker lines of shadow and again with the light areas of mowed fields. Kane, who never attended an art class, developed his own expressive techniques. For a naif, he was an acutely sophisticated observer!

Emigrating from Scotland in 1879, Kane participated in America’s vast industrial expansion. An unskilled laborer, he worked at any trade that would pay him a wage, and worked unceasingly except for imposed layoffs during periods of economic depressions. He was always poor. A strong, proud and hard-drinking man, Kane had an intense love for America, its cities and countryside, its traditions and work ethic. He admired George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; both were self-educated, self-motivated men with whom he could identify. He worked ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week. Why he turned to painting when he was forty is difficult to understand. Sunday, after Mass, was his only time for himself, and this he set aside as his time to paint. It is impossible to date most of his works; however, the majority were painted in the last seven years of his life, especially in the final four when he was able to sit almost daily before his easel.

Kane’s autobiography, Sky Hooks, as related to Marie McSwigan, a Pittsburgh newspaper woman, is a remarkable achievement for a barely educated man. It is a moving, lively tale, told with warmth and humor, and completely devoid of self-pity or self-concern. “It is in the main a simple story but like my paintings it contains many details, too.”(1) He found “beauty everywhere”—in America’s burgeoning industrial scene, in its landscapes, and in the routines of daily life. And that is the essential nature of John Kane’s art.



1. Leon A. Arkus, comp., John Kane, Painter (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971), p. 102.

Presumed copyright: the artist or the artist's representative/heir(s).