John Steuart Curry – Freeing of the Slaves

John Steuart Curry

(American, 1897-1946)

Freeing of the Slaves

Oil and tempera on canvas
14 x 37 ft.

Freeing of the Slaves by John Steuart Curry is dramatically triumphant. Similar to other artworks by Curry, the composition is thick with figures. Beginning at the left a group of slaves leave their quarters to walk behind Union soldier troops underneath the shadows of a storm. As the painting continues right, a new day breaks, symbolizing the end of the war and the emancipation of all slaves. The main central figure ecstatically outstretches his arms and looks to the heavens as the Union flag proudly waves in the background. At his feet lay two dead soldiers, one Confederate and one Union, and at his right the victorious Union army marches on. Fittingly, Freeing of the Slaves is similar in composition to another mural by Curry depicting staunch abolitionist John Brown, Tragic Prelude – John Brown.

Freeing of the Slaves was originally conceived for the US Department of Justice building in Washington D.C. However it was rejected for being too racially and politically controversial. Former University of Wisconsin-Madison Law school Dean Lloyd K. Garrison (grandson of famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison) saw Curry’s preparatory studies and helped the mural come to fruition. Curry completed Freeing of the Slaves in 1942 during his ten-year residency (1936-1946) at the UW-Madison.

Curry remains one of the three most important American Regionalist painters of the 1930s along with Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Raised on a farm near Dunavant, Kansas, Curry gained recognition with paintings that depicted the people and landscape of the Middle West. As a pictorial storyteller he promoted populist ideologies in his many paintings, prints, and murals.


Freeing of the Slaves is located in the Law Library’s Quarles and Brady Reading Room. The Law Library is on the 2nd floor of the Law Building (975 Bascom Mall).


“UW Curry mural tells forgotten emancipation story.” UW-Madison University Communications

Reidinger, Paul. “The Law School’s Curry Mural: One of the Grandest and Most Distinguished Works of Art in Wisconsin.” The Gargoyle 10 (Summer 1985).

Junker, Patricia. John Steuart Curry: Inventing the Middle West. New York: Hudson Hills Press in association with the Elvehjem Museum of Art, 1998.

Kendall, M. Sue. Rethinking Regionalism: John Steuart Curry and the Kansas Mural Controversy. Washington D.C. and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986.