"Genius has been discovered!" announced the Pittsburgh Press when John Kane's Scene from the Scottish Highlands was accepted in the 1927 Carnegie International exhibition. The selection was indeed remarkable, for Kane was a simple laborer who entirely lacked formal artistic training and had never previously exhibited his work. His canvas, chosen from over 400 entries by most of the major painters of the day, was the only work by a Pittsburgh artist to be admitted to the show.
Reporters soon traced the artist to his shabby one-room apartment by the railroad tracks in Pittsburgh's market district, where Kane had painted for years without an audience or recognition. Suddenly, he became a national celebrity. In the next several years he participated in four more Internationals, and in 1928, 1929, and 1932 he won prizes in the Annual Exhibition of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh. Outside the city he exhibited at Harvard University, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and The Museum of Modern Art. By 1930 he had sold paintings to such well-heeled clients as Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and John Dewey, chairman of the department of philosophy at Columbia University.
Kane himself later remarked, "If I had tried the world over for an exhibition to show my work I couldn't have found a better one than that International, right here in Pittsburgh." He was by no means overwhelmed, however, by the honors that came his way. "I have lived too long the life of the poor," he noted, "to attach undue importance to the honors of the art world or to any honors that come from man and not from God."
Scene from the Scottish Highlands was selected for the International at the insistence of juror Andrew Dasburg, whose own work consisted of cubist landscapes of New Mexico modeled after Picasso and Cézanne. Dasburg won his goal only after threatening to veto all the other selections. To demonstrate good faith, he purchased Kane's painting for his own collection.
Dasburg's enthusiasm for the painting was clearly influenced by his exposure to modern European art, which evolved from a visit to Paris in 1910 and encounters with Matisse and with Leo and Gertrude Stein. He certainly knew of the work of the French primitive Henri Rousseau, who had been championed by Picasso in a precedent for Dasburg's support of Kane's work. Folk art at this time was still intimately linked with the development of modern art, and Kane, the first American folk artist to win fame in his own lifetime, was also the last to exhibit with the most progressive American painters.
Carnegie Museum of Art today houses the largest single collection of Kane's work, including Scene from the Scottish Highlands, the painting that brought him his first recognition. Kane, who had spent most of his childhood in Scotland, noted in an oddly spelled letter to Dasburg, that the painting was a recollection of the days when "I run about the boghs and highlands in bonny Scotland when I was a wee Laddie." In the same letter Kane noted that he himself preferred to title the painting "Braw Wee Heilun Lasses" Kane painted several other scenes of kilt-clad Scottish dancers, several of which depict the annual Scottish festival in Pittsburgh's Kennywood Park.