John Kane, whose work was regarded as boldly original, became the first contemporary American folk artist to be recognized by a museum. Born John Cain in Scotland to Irish parents in 1860, Kane left school at the age of nine to enter the mines. In 1879 he immigrated to western Pennsylvania, but eventually settled in Alabama, where he worked as a coal miner and bricklayer, earning a reputation as a rowdy but hard-working laborer. Kane soon began to sketch local scenery and draw rough landscapes, memories of slate-drawings he had done in Scotland. Homesickness caused him to join his family in the North, and by 1890 he was at work paving the streets of Pittsburgh and McKeesport, Pennsylvania. After losing his leg in a train accident in 1891, when he was thirty-one years old, Kane worked temporarily as a watchman before he was employed painting freight cars. He often sketched landscapes on the cars before covering them with paint. For a short while he also enlarged and tinted photographs for mining families. The death of an infant son in 1904 led him into a cycle of drinking and despair, which in turn caused long periods of wandering, during which he worked as an itinerant house painter and carpenter. By the end of World War I, Kane was again in Pittsburgh, where he spent the remainder of his life.
In 1927 Kane submitted a work to the jury of the Carnegie International Exhibition, and through the encouragement of painter-juror Andrew Dasberg, one of his canvases was accepted. Nevertheless, he remained unaffected by either critical praise or financial success. He eventually gained recognition for his characteristic folk style, however, with meticulous detail and flat color, and he received numerous honors and museum exhibitions major museums before his death in 1934.