University Museums

Title: Circus Elephants
Name: Print
Date: 1936
Period: Depression Era
Medium: Lithograph on paper
Country/Culture: American
Dimensions: 9 x 12 5/8 in. (22.9 x 32.1 cm)
Signed: John Steuart Curry in pencil, lower right
Inscription: "Elephants 1936" in pencil, lower left
Edition: Ed. of 250
Classification: Prints and Printing Plates
Credit Line: Transferred from the Applied Art Department, Iowa State University. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museusms, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
Object Number: UM82.91
More Information
Ten elephants are seen feeding on hay underneath a large circus tent. A lone donkey can be seen in the lower left-hand corner. This is likely a traveling circus, an extremely popular form of entertainment in the early to mid 1900s. Circuses exposed Midwesterners to exotic animals and acrobatic rituals never before seen. Traveling circuses were made famous by gentlemen such as P.T. Barnum (1810-1891) and the five Ringling Brothers (1850s-1930s). In 1932, Curry traveled with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus on a two-month tour through New England and the Mid-Atlantic States, sketching and, later, painting scenes of circus life.

Curry was born in Kansas and began his studies at the Art Institute of Kansas. He subsequently attended the Art Institute of Chicago, Genève College, and the Studio of Schoukhaieff in Paris. In 1936, Curry became an artist-in-residence, appointed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison to promote art in rural life. Along with fellow Midwestern artists Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, Curry emerged in the 1930s as a preeminent artist of the Regionalist movement.


Like other regional artists, Curry chose the agrarian society of midwestern America as his primary subject matter, exploring everyday life as well as its diversions, including the traveling circuses that regularly stopped in small towns. Curry was fascinated by the circus that brought to colorful big tops the exotic, bizarre and dangerous for rural folk to witness. Clearly filled with entertainment, the circus for Curry was also an abundance of inspiration, teeming with new forms, both human and animal, to be studied and drawn. While most of his imagery featured the great athletic headliners of the center ring, such as the High Wire Wallendas or the acrobatic equestrians of the Orrin Davenport Troupe, the performing circus animals also fascinated Curry. The artist created several lively studies of big top animals, the finest of which resulted in an oil painting in 1931 titled "Elephants," from which this print was created.
Published References: AAA Cat.: 1936-02; 1936-04; 1937-06; 1938-02; 1939-04