Pittsburgh’s John Kane: The Life & Art of an American Workman

Pittsburgh loves an underdog.

Explore the gripping story of a Pittsburgh immigrant who endured poverty, tragedy, and other adversities to become one of the world’s most revered self-taught artists inside the Heinz History Center’s new exhibition, Pittsburgh’s John Kane: The Life & Art of an American Workman open through January 8, 2023.

Grounded in new scholarship from Louise Lippincott and Maxwell King, authors of the new book “American Workman: The Life and Art of John Kane,” the History Center exhibition features 37 original works of art and dozens of artifacts that showcase the world of John Kane – a turn-of-the-century Scottish immigrant who achieved breakthrough success as a painter after toiling for more than 40 years as a laborer in industrial-age Pittsburgh.

After immigrating to the steel mill town of Braddock, Pa., in 1880, John Kane spent most of his life as thousands of workmen did, grinding away at low paying jobs – mostly as a commercial painter of rail cars, houses, and buildings – to make ends meet.

A study in contrasts, Kane was a hard-fighting, heavy-drinking worker who once lost his leg in a railroad accident, yet possessed a sensitive side and an artist’s soul. Without any formal training, Kane used his spare time to paint scenes of Pittsburgh. Where others saw tortured industrial landscapes, his artistic eye saw the beauty and can-do spirit of Pittsburgh and its people.

Much like Andy Warhol in the 1960s, Kane’s meteoric rise at the age of 67 signaled a generational change in American art, culture, and society.

So how did Kane go from painting houses to painting canvases that grace the galleries of some of the most prestigious art museums in the world? Pittsburgh’s John Kane will reveal his dramatic life story, explore his legacy, and examine the realities of an immigrant laborer’s life in Western Pa.

Exhibit Must-Sees

  • 37 original works of art by John Kane, plus a dozen other works by his contemporaries.
  • Paintings and drawings from America’s most prestigious art museums and collectors, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Carnegie Museum of Art, American Folk Art Museum, Detroit Institute of Arts, the Phillips Collection, and others.
  • An immersive walk-through of Kane’s “Crossing the Junction” painting will allow visitors to travel through a Pittsburgh landscape as Kane did and explore his artistic process.
  • A recreated boxcar similar to the railroad cars that Kane worked on as the lead painter for the Pressed Steel Car Company.
  • Kane’s tin whistle and flute that he carried everywhere. He began playing music as a child and those Scottish tunes became the soundtrack of his life.
  • A watercolor wheel from the American Folk Art Museum that acted as Kane’s personal palette. Kane took immense pride in his ability to mix and create colors using paint, and the wheel gives insight into the intersection of his work and art.
  • Never-before-seen photographs and archival pieces, including six gelatin silver prints taken by John Kane and images from collections of the Detre Library & Archives at the History Center, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Museum of Art Archives, and University of Pittsburgh Archives.

The Pittsburgh’s John Kane exhibition was on view May 21 through Jan. 8, 2023 and was made possible thanks to support from The Heinz Endowments, Hillman Family Foundation, Richard King Mellon Foundation and Allegheny Regional Asset District.