While our physical offices are closed until further notice in accordance with Austin's COVID-19 "stay home-work safe" order, the Handbook of Texas will remain available at no-cost for you, your fellow history enthusiasts, and all Texas students currently mandated to study from home. If you have the capacity to help us maintain our online Texas history resources during these uncertain times, please consider making a 100% tax-deductible contribution today. Thank you for your support of TSHA and Texas history. Donate Today »


Kendall Curlee

CANADAY, JOHN EDWIN (1907–1985). John Canaday, art critic and author, was born on February 1, 1907, in Fort Scott, Kansas, one of six children of Franklin and Agnes F. (Musson) Canaday. His family moved to Dallas when Canaday was seven and later moved to San Antonio, where he attended Main Avenue High School. Canaday entered the University of Texas in 1924 and earned a B.A. degree in French and English literature in 1929. He subsequently studied painting and art history at Yale University, where he received an M.A. in 1933. He taught at Washburn College (later Washburn University of Topeka) in 1933–34; at Newcomb College, Tulane University, New Orleans (1934–36); Hollins College, Roanoke, Virginia (1936–38); and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville (1938–50). In 1943 he traveled to the Belgian Congo and acted as a French interpreter for the Bureau of Economic Welfare, and the following year he joined the United States Marine Corps. He served as a lieutenant in the South Pacific until the end of World War II, after which he returned to the University of Virginia. From 1950 to 1952 Canaday headed the art school at Newcomb College in New Orleans. He worked as chief of the educational division at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1953 to 1959. During this period he wrote the text for Metropolitan Seminars in Art, a widely distributed series of twenty-four portfolios published between 1958 and 1960 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

In 1959 Canaday began a seventeen-year career as a critic for the New York Times. In his first column on September 6, 1959, he inflamed the art establishment by proclaiming that Abstract Expressionism, the dominant style of the period, allowed "exceptional tolerance for incompetence and deception." Although he acknowledged the talent of the best Abstract Expressionists, he noted that "we have been had" by the "freaks, the charlatans, and the misled who surround this handful of serious and talented artists." Canaday's inaugural column and subsequent articles criticizing this style provoked a much-publicized letter to the Times signed by forty-nine of the nation's leading art figures, who denounced Canaday as an agitator. Other artists and critics, however, championed him as an honest and articulate observer of the art scene, which continued to provide ample targets for his barbed wit over the years.

In addition to writing for the Times, Canaday published a number of influential books, notably Mainstreams of Modern Art: David to Picasso (1959), winner of the Athenaeum Award and a popular art history textbook for many years. His experiences as a critic provided the subject matter of two books, Embattled Critic: Views on Modern Art (1962) and Culture Gulch: Notes on Art and Its Public in the 1960's (1969). He also wrote Keys to Art, with Katherine H. Canaday (1963), The Lives of the Painters (1969), Baroque Painters (1972), Late Gothic to Renaissance Painters (1972), Neoclassic to Post-Impressionist Painters (1972), My Best Girls: 8 Drawings (1972), The New York Guide to Dining Out in New York (1972), The Artful Avocado (1973), Richard Estes: The Urban Landscape (1979), What is Art? An Introduction to Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture (1980), and Ben Shahn, Voices and Visions (1981). In the 1940s and 1950s, under the pen name Matthew Head, Canaday wrote seven crime novels with such titles as The Smell of Money (1943), The Congo Venus (1976), and Murder at the Flea Club (1957). Drawing in part on his experiences in the Congo, he set three of his mysteries in Africa, and they were heralded by one critic as subtly foreshadowing a time of change on the African continent.

In 1973 Canaday stepped down from his post as art critic in order to devote more time to writing books, although he continued to write restaurant reviews for the Times until his retirement in 1977. Canaday taught several courses as a guest lecturer at the University of Texas in the spring of 1977. He continued to lecture and to write for such publications as Smithsonian Magazine, the New Republic, and the New York Times Magazine until his death. John Canaday married Katherine S. Hoover on September 19, 1935, and they had two sons. He died of pancreatic cancer on July 19, 1985.

New York Times, July 21, 1985. New Yorker, January 4, 1964. Who's Who in America, 1984–85.

Image Use Disclaimer

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Kendall Curlee, "CANADAY, JOHN EDWIN," accessed May 26, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fcabt.

Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
visit the mytsha forums to participate

View these posts and more when you register your free MyTSHA account.

Call for Papers: Texas Center for Working-Class Studies Events, Symposia, and Workshops
Hi all! You may be interested in this call for papers I received from the Texas Center for Working-Class Studies at Collin College...

Katy Jennings' Ride Scholarly Research Request
I'm doing research on Catherine Jennings Lockwood, specifically the incident known as "Katy Jennings' Ride." Her father was Gordon C. Jennings, the oldest man to die at the Alamo...

Texas Constitution of 1836 Co-Author- Elisha Pease? Ask a Historian
The TSHA profile of Elisha Marshall Pease states that he wrote part of the Texas Constitution although he was only a 24 year-old assistant secretary (not elected). I cannot find any other mention of this authorship work by Pease in other credible research about the credited Constution authors...