Lot 67
  • 67

Thomas Hart Benton 1889-1975

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Description

  • Thomas Hart Benton
  • The Cotton PIcker
  • signed Benton, l.r.
  • tempera on masonite

Provenance

Associated American Artists, New York

Dr. Robert Clark Reed, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania

Irwin L. Bernstein, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, acquired from the above, 1982

By descent to the present owners

Exhibited

Seattle, Washington, Henry Art Gallery; Austin, Texas, Laguna Gloria Art Museum; Minneapolis, Minnesolta, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Thomas Hart Benton: Drawing from Life, March 1990-January 199, illustrated in color p. 133, pl. 123 

New York, Owen Gallery, Thomas Hart Benton, October-December 2000, p. 70, illustrated in color p. 71 and on the cover

Catalogue Note

Born in Neosho, Missouri in 1889, Thomas Hart Benton was raised in America’s heartland and rose to prominence as a painter of daily life in rural America.  Benton’s strong sense of nationalism developed at an early age, given the politicized environment in which he grew up.  His great-uncle was Missouri’s first Senator and his father was a congressional representative who often invited other public figures to their home. This exposure gave Benton an interest in the American scene that developed into a lifelong theme in his artistic career.  He was fascinated by the singular energy of America and strongly believed in the creation of an “American art.”  It has been observed that the nature of Benton’s subject matter has much in common with the Farm Services Administration project of the 1940s where photographers like Dorothea Lange traveled the country chronicling American life.  It was Benton’s extensive travels, combined with his family’s prominence that made him as much an historian as an artist, and as much a nationalist as a regionalist.

Marianne Berardi writes, “Although Benton is now chiefly remembered as a ‘Regionalist,’ this term was developed surprisingly late, at the very end of 1934, after not only Benton, but Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry had already produced much of their most memorable work. . . .[their work] attracted the attention of Henry Luce, who was looking for something to feature in a forthcoming article in Time magazine, which was to be illustrated, for the first time, in full color.  Luce thought that the paintings would serve nicely for Time’s first color story, and that the theme of painting the Midwest and the American Scene would make a striking story angle.  On Christmas Eve of 1934, the story appeared, with Benton on the cover, and an article hailing Benton, Curry, and Wood as leaders of a new painting movement that celebrated the American way of life.  All three became celebrities overnight.  Largely disregarded up until that time by New York art critics, they were suddenly transformed into the three most famous American painters”  Thomas Hart Benton, Owen Gallery, New York, 2000, p. 25).

The sympathetic portrayal of the strength, courage and dignity of American farmers was a theme that preoccupied Benton throughout his career.  As Mathew Baigell writes, “Concerned with symbolizing everyday events and the lives of ordinary people, he sought the archetypal in the commonplace and tried to invest the average with mythic properties.  ‘This is the American experience,’ he seemed to be saying, and his view could be best expressed by generalizing a subject from the specific.  Years later, he well summarized this view in a single sentence.  ‘I believe I have wanted, more than anything else, to make pictures, the imagery of which would carry unmistakably American meanings for Americans and for as many of them as possible’” (Thomas Hart Benton, New York, 1973, p.87).

Painted circa 1940, The Cotton Picker exemplifies Benton’s distinctive version of this uniquely American style.  The image of the field worker, painstakingly gathering cotton, is both a sympathetic portrayal of a particular individual, as well as a far more general portrait of a life that was then the reality for many—both black and white—in the rural South.  

This work will be included in the forthcoming Thomas Hart Benton catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Thomas Hart Benton Catalogue Raisonné Foundation.

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