MMA Permanent Collection

Welcome to the Permanent Collection here at the Muskegon Museum of Art. While it is not practical for us to show you everything in our collection, we do hope to highlight a few of works here that might whet your appetite. We hope you enjoy your visit, and encourage you to ask us questions or make suggestions. We hope to see you at the Museum!


John Steuart Curry (American, 1897-1946)

Tornado Over Kansas
Oil on canvas, 1929
Hackley Picture Fund purchase, 1935.4


Tornado Over Kansas and Baptism in Kansas are arguably John Steuart Curry’s two most famous paintings. Heavily reproduced, both have been used not only to define Curry’s career, but the entire Regionalist art movement. Tornado Over Kansas speaks to a distinct period of U.S. history and the struggle to define the “American” style of art. Tornado has been celebrated from its first public display, receiving a second place award at the “Century of Progress” exhibition in 1930. The painting has appeared in over 150 publications since its debut, including school textbooks, art magazines, art history texts, and the Hollywood blockbuster Twister. Tornado first captured the eye of the nation in 1934, in the pages of Time magazine, where the painting was illustrated in an article about the new U.S. style painters. The article included biographies on Thomas Hart Benton, Reginald Marsh, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood.

Full of heightened drama and mythic figures, Tornado was painted while Curry lived in Connecticut and is inspired by the memories of his youth and his efforts to define an “American” style of art. The house and barn look much like those on the farm he grew up on and are used here to typify the Midwest homestead. The tornado is the ultimate expression of the power the weather holds over life in the Midwest and on its farms in particular—its destructive force cannot be controlled or prevented and its visual presence evokes fear and danger. According to his widow, Curry never saw a tornado himself, but it is impossible to live in Kansas and not know the very real possibility one, and the sense of dread that comes with every violent storm. Curry would certainly have heard numerous accounts of devastating tornados and has depicted this one based upon spoken and photographic accounts.

Curry worked as an illustrator, and the dramatic narrative speaks to conveying a story through art. The figures in this drama are icons for the prototypical family in Curry’s Kansas. The father is central, rising over the other figures in a place of command, his square jaw and heroic profile set against the fury of the storm, his well muscled arm cocked against the threat. His wife is pale and frightened, clutching her child to her breast and looking to her husband for support. The boys are smaller versions of their father, serving as rescuers to the family’s cat and dogs. The last child, a girl, looks up to her father as protector, as he pulls her by the hand to safety. The entire family is grouped into a circle, heightening their connection to each other and planting them firmly amidst the tilting angles of the farm around them. Their circular configuration also serves to repeat the motion of the approaching tornado.

Tornado Over Kansas was purchased by the Hackley Art Gallery from Feragil Galleries, through the efforts of Maynard Walker, an aggressive proponent of Regionalist art. At the time the Curry was under consideration it was accompanied by a painting by Thomas Hart Benton. The Benton was not purchased, nor were the additional Curry paintings that Walker offered at the close of the sale of Tornado Over Kansas. While in retrospect the purchase of the Curry seems an obvious choice, and the decline of the Benton and another Curry short-sighted, in 1935 the paintings were new, the careers of the artists promising but not celebrated, and the movement of Regionalism still in its early stages and derided by the Modernist critics in New York. Today, Tornado Over Kansas is a national treasure and one of our most prominent works.


In 1931, Michigan-born real estate broker H. Tracy Kneeland, who had recently moved to Hartford, Connecticut, Curry's home state, offered to purchase the painting, as it stirred memories of his own childhood in St. Louis, Gratiot County. In a letter to Curry, Kneeland wrote:
"I find … a certain native quality which interests me because I was born and brought up in Michigan and   while I  have  never seen a tornado of this kind I can well remember school being let out and running for dear life for home, with the branches torn off the trees … the whole picture seems to strike a home chord in me."
The “home chord” that Curry awakened in Kneeland reflected a growing desire among American artists to picture a simpler time in the wake of World War I and at the onset of the Great Depression. Rejecting European-bred modernism and abstraction, many artists sought to create, in realistic terms, an indigenous art, perceived in the American consciousness to thrive in the pioneer-spirit virtues of the nation’s heartland.
Tornado Over Kansas found its ultimate home in Michigan, but not with Mr. Kneeland. In 1935, the MMA acquired what became one of the great icons of American Regionalism. John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, and Thomas Hart Benton were the most influential of the American Scene painters.


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