Charles Courtney Curran (1861-1942)

Charles Courtney Curran (1861-1942)

A leader of New York State’s Cragsmoor artists’ colony, Charles Courtney Curran was a successful and productive artist throughout his lifetime, earning many awards for his figure paintings of beautiful young women set among the grand vistas of the Hudson River Valley region. Curran was born in Kentucky and raised in Ohio, and spent a year at the McMicken School of Design in Cincinnati before moving to New York in 1881 to study at the National Academy of Design. Two years later he showed his first painting at the Academy, and would continue to take part in their exhibitions for every year thereafter until his passing in 1942. In 1888, the year he became an Associate member, he won the Academy’s Third Hallgarten Prize and with it a monetary award of $100. This accolade, combined with the sales of several of his paintings, enabled Curran to marry and to broaden his education in Paris, where he enrolled at the Académie Julian in 1889 and studied under Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. 

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The artist arrived in the historic capital at a culturally important time. In addition to the Exposition Universelle held in the summer of 1889, which featured paintings and sculpture from around the globe, examples of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art movements could be found gracing the walls of Paris’ galleries, cafés and artists’ studios. Curran absorbed these developments and as a consequence his own palette began to lighten and his brushwork grew more relaxed. He continued sending work home to display at the National Academy and exhibited three paintings at the Paris Salon during his two-and-a-half years abroad, earning an honorable mention in 1890. 

In the summer of 1891, Curran returned to the United States and established a studio and home in New York City while spending the warmer months in northern Ohio. Rather than working with a dealer like many of his contemporaries, he devoted his energy to building a successful career through his memberships with several arts and cultural organizations, including the Society of American Artists, the Lotos Club and the Salmagundi Club, thus bringing his work to the eyes of the city’s influential citizens. He was able to secure portrait commissions and sell many of his paintings privately, while continuing to participate in annual exhibitions at the National Academy and earning four more awards in the ensuing years. He also took part in shows at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Boston Art Club and the Art Institute of Chicago, in addition to several World’s Fairs, having realized the importance of these international gatherings during his time in Paris. He returned to France in 1900 to serve as vice-chairman of the American Arts Committee at the 1900 Exposition and one year later held a similar position during the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Curran earned medals for his paintings at both fairs, as well as at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the St. Louis Exposition in 1904.

Curran’s early work included landscapes and interiors, as well as beach scenes inspired by his family’s summers on Lake Erie, but around the turn of the century he narrowed his focus to the idyllic outdoor paintings of young women for which he is today best remembered. Around 1903, he discovered the perfect backdrop for these works when the artist Frederick Dellenbaugh invited him to Cragsmoor, an art center in the Shawangunk Mountains of New York’s Lower Hudson River Valley. Charmed by the breathtaking views, lush greenery and rocky terrain, Curran soon built a home he called “Winahdin,” and returned to the colony every summer for the rest of his life. Set among the wildflowers, peaceful valleys and endless skies, the artist captured elegantly dressed young women at leisure, often with faraway expressions on their faces and rendered with his Impressionist’s sense of light and atmosphere. 

While the Impressionist movement eventually yielded the spotlight to modern trends of social realism and abstraction, Curran kept true to his beliefs in capturing the tranquility and beauty he experienced in Cragsmoor, and hoped to carry these tenets on to future generations. He was an instructor at the National Academy from 1917 to 1942, and for a time taught at the Art Students League and the Pratt Institute. Curran became a full National Academician in 1904 and in 1936, in honor of his seventy-fifth birthday, his fellow members presented him with a book of their drawings and notes, describing him as “a loyal friend, a jolly comrade, a good fighter and a great worker with a keen and delicate sense of beauty.”[1] Today, paintings by Curran are in many important collections around the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, the Richmond Art Museum in Richmond, Indiana, and the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut. In 2014, a major retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work was mounted by the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee, before traveling to the Frick Art and Historical Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, South Carolina.

References: Falk, Who Was Who in American Art (1999); Faquin, Jane Ward, with Maia Jalenak. Charles Courtney Curran: Seeking the Ideal (Memphis, TN: Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 2014). ‚Äč

[1] Homage to Charles Courtney Curran (New York: National Academy of Design, 1935-36). Reprinted by James Bakker (Carlisle, MA: Pentacie Press, 1975). The quotation came from the cover of the booklet designed by Edwin Blashfield (as cited in Faquin, Jane Ward, with Maia Jalenak. Charles Courtney Curran: Seeking the Ideal (Memphis, TN: Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 2014), p. 27, note 31.

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