John Kane, Scene from the Scottish Highlands, c. 1927 © 2006 Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
“On his third try in 1927, however, Kane succeeded in winning over the Carnegie jury with one of his own compositions, a painting he called Scene in the Scottish Highlands. The admission of a common house-painter and handyman to so prestigious an exhibition caused an immediate furor. Indeed, it was the first time ever that a living self-taught artist had been recognized by the American art establishment.” —Jane Kallir
“Genius has been discovered!” announced the Pittsburgh Press when John Kane’s Scene from the Scottish Highlands was accepted in the 1927 Carnegie International exhibition. The selection was indeed remarkable, for Kane was a simple laborer who entirely lacked formal artistic training and had never previously exhibited his work. His canvas, chosen from over 400 entries by most of the major painters of the day, was the only work by a Pittsburgh artist to be admitted to the show.
Reporters soon traced the artist to his shabby one-room apartment by the railroad tracks in Pittsburgh’s market district, where Kane had painted for years without an audience or recognition. Suddenly, he became a national celebrity. In the next several years he participated in four more Internationals, and in 1928, 1929, and 1932 he won prizes in the Annual Exhibition of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh. Outside the city he exhibited at Harvard University, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and The Museum of Modern Art. By 1930 he had sold paintings to such well-heeled clients as Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and John Dewey, chairman of the department of philosophy at Columbia University.
Kane himself later remarked, “If I had tried the world over for an exhibition to show my work I couldn’t have found a better one than that International, right here in Pittsburgh.” He was by no means overwhelmed, however, by the honors that came his way. “I have lived too long the life of the poor,” he noted, “to attach undue importance to the honors of the art world or to any honors that come from man and not from God.”