Artist: John Steuart Curry
Commentary by Kerry Soper
Professor of Humanities, Classics and Comparative Literature
“Baby Ruth” is an intriguing painting because the signals it sends about its female subject are so nuanced and ambivalent. Given this woman’s public identity as a circus “freak” (a grotesque diversion from norms or ideals of female beauty), you would expect a typical artist to depict her in a way that would evoke laughter, disgust, or perhaps condescending pity. But John Steuart Curry paints her in a fashion that short-circuits those kinds of predictable responses. To begin, while most comic artists would be inclined to caricature the features and amplify the size of this human oddity, Curry, instead, depicts her with a feathery brushstroke; with gentle, unexaggerated realism; and with a cheery, light-infused palette. And then his placement of Baby Ruth in the center of the frame—with the viewer assuming a slightly upward looking perspective—encourages one to see her almost as iconic and heroic rather than silly or pathetic. And finally, the fact that she has a genuinely pretty and feminine face—and gazes back at the viewer with unabashed self confidence—further encourages one to see her in a more positive light.
Knowing a bit about Curry’s biography and artistic affiliations can help to explain this sympathetic treatment. First, we know that Curry encountered “Baby Ruth” after “running away” in 1932 with the Ringling Brothers Circus (as an established, adult artist) to broaden his horizons. As an extension of the circus family, he would have come to know Ruth Pontico as an individual rather than a curiosity; and the fact that she liked the completed painting especially “the baby blue of her eyes against her light pink dress”—confirms that they had established a respectful rapport. Second, perhaps Curry’s membership within the school of Regionalism also encouraged him to take this surprisingly gentle approach with his subject. Eschewing the avant-gardism of Modernist art, Regionalists championed a homey, “American” realism, and playfully celebrated figures of Midwestern goodness and stability. And thus Baby Ruth is a close cousin to other Regionalist icons such as Grant Wood’s Farmer and Wife in “American Gothic.”
In the end, nevertheless, Baby Ruth still, undeniably, stands out as a humorous public spectacle both within her original context (a circus freak show) and her current home: a museum which features so many idealized images of femaleness from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century (domestic “Angels in the House,” flattering portraits women of leisure, svelte virgins embodying mythological figures or abstract ideals, and the occasional New Woman or athletic Gibson Girl). But the joke Curry is telling here is neither loud nor completely at the subject’s expense; it’s a quiet jest that celebrates Baby Ruth as a playful symbol of American abundance and Mid-western pride—perhaps more “prize-winning entry at mid-Western county fair,” than laughable freak.
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