Learn About the Artists

John Kane

American (b. Scotland)

John Kane
Girl with Doll Carriage, 1930
oil on canvas

ohn Kane (né Cain) was born on August 19, 1860 in West Calder (later known as Glasgow Bank), Scotland. He had little formal education and by the age of nine was working in coalmines. Ten years later he immigrated to the United States, to Braddock, Pennsylvania, where other family members had already settled. He worked as a manual laborer at a variety of jobs, but in 1891 lost his left leg in a train yard accident. No longer able to perform the tasks he once did, he became a house and train car painter.

Kane married in 1897, but the death of his infant son in 1904 affected him deeply and he became distant from his wife and two daughters. They eventually left him, and he took up life as an itinerant worker. It was in 1910 that Kane began painting artistically, making images on the sides of boxcars during his lunch break; he would subsequently paint over these creations with the standard color that he was expected to put on the car. During his travels, he applied to art schools in numerous places including Cleveland, Charleston and West Virginia, but his traveling lifestyle and the expense of tuition precluded the pursuit of formal art studies.

Eventually he returned to Pittsburgh where he had also attempted unsuccessfully to enroll in art school. He spent the 1920s selling colored photographs and paintings. His first real artistic recognition came in 1927 when the Carnegie Institute accepted one of his pictures for exposition. His notoriety increased, eventually leading to reconciliation with his wife.

The paintings Kane is best known for were done in the last seven years of his life, before his death from tuberculosis in 1934. His subjects were mainly drawn from his Scottish heritage, his family and self-portraiture, and from the industrial scenery of Pittsburgh.

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