John Kane


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Painter. Self-taught, he is remembered mostly for carefully observed, stylized cityscapes, interior views, and industrial scenes of Pittsburgh. He also painted portraits and, from memory, scenes of his native Scotland. In his best-known work, Self-Portrait (Museum of Modern Art, 1929), he depicted his half-length nude body in a dramatic frontal pose. Strongly side lit to enhance three-dimensional form, his torso reveals physical power that complements strength of character suggested in his serious demeanor. A black backdrop intensifies the contours of his body and sets off the flesh tones, while three abstract white arches above his head intensify the design and contribute to an iconic effect. Born in West Calder, near Edinburgh, John Cain left school at nine and worked in coal mines and factories before he arrived in the United States in 1879. He continued to toil as a miner and laborer in several locations until 1891, when loss of a leg in an accident necessitated less physically demanding employment. Among his subsequent varied jobs, painting houses and freight cars and coloring photographs extended his growing interest in sketching and, later, painting in his leisure time. His early work reveals much stumbling, but perseverance improved his skill at composition and representation. Sometime before he settled permanently in Pittsburgh during the World War I era, he changed the spelling of his surname. He apparently did not endeavor to exhibit his work until the mid-1920s, but he achieved sudden fame when one of his paintings appeared in Pittsburgh's Carnegie International Exhibition in 1927. Most of his best work dates to subsequent years, when he affectionately recorded complex, fact-based Pittsburgh views, sometimes filtered through imagination or memory. The subjects of these works relate to the contemporary American Scene movement. An autobiography, Sky Hooks (written in collaboration with newspaper reporter Marie McSwigan), appeared posthumously in 1938.

Subjects: Art.

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