Thomas Hart Benton 1889 - 1975
- Thomas Hart Benton
- Flood Disaster (Homecoming - Kaw Valley)
- signed Benton and dated 51, l.r.
- oil and tempera on canvas mounted on plywood (original)
Collection or Mr. and Mrs. Louis Sosland, Shawnee, Kansas
(Constable Gallery, Missouri)
Graham Gallery, New York, until circa 1988 (acquired from the above)
(Joan Michelman, New York)
Ed Cantor, Palm Beach, Florida
(Gasiunasen Gallery, Palm Beach, Florida)
Acquired by the present owners from the above
Lawrence, Kansas, The University of Kansas Museum of Art, Thomas H. Benton, April-May 1951
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, Edith C. Blum Art Institute, Bard College; Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Center Gallery, Bucknell University; Flushing, New York, Queens Museum; Yonkers, New York, Hudson River Museum, Thomas Hart Benton: Chronicler of America's Folk Heritage, November 1984-July 1985, no. 37, illustrated in color p. 61
"Havoc Stirs an Artist," The Kansas City Star, October 14, 1952
"An Artist Hits at Lagging Flood Relief," The Kansas City Star, October 14, 1951
"Artist Asking Congress to Aid Flood Victims," The New York Times, October 15, 1951
"The Representative Picks Up Some Valuable Trash," The Kansas City Star, October 19, 1951
"A Congressman Speaks (and Tosses the Benton Lithographs into the Wastebasket)," The Kansas City Star, October 22, 1951
"Some Kept Benton Pictures," The Kansas City Star, October 23, 1951
"Homecoming - Kaw Valley: Famous Artist's Appeal to Congress for Aid to Flood-Stricken Families," The Kansas City Star, 1951, illustrated
"Benton Lithograph Goes to Each Congressman," Vineyard Gazette, October 26, 1951
"His Drawing of Flood Ruins Accompanies a Magazine Item," The Kansas City Star, November 20, 1951
Thomas Hart Benton, "Disaster on the Kaw," The New Republic, vol. 125, no. 19, November 19, 1951, pl. 9, 10, 11, also illustrated on the cover
"Art Was Sold By Auction," The Kansas City Star, November 27, 1951
"Thomas Hart Benton in Omaha," Newsweek, December 3, 1951, p. 56, illustrated p. 57
Matthew Baigell, Thomas Hart Benton, New York, 1973, pl. 187, illustrated in color p. 228
We are grateful to Henry Adams for preparing the following essay. Dr. Adams is a graduate of Harvard and received his M.A. and PhD from Yale, where he received the Frances Blanshard Prize for the best doctoral dissertation in art history. He is the author of over 280 publications in the American art field. His most recent book is Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock, New York, 2010.
Thomas Hart Benton
The son of a U. S. Congressman, and the namesake of the first Senator from west of the Mississippi, Thomas Hart Benton shocked his family by spurning a career in politics or law and pursuing a career as an artist in Paris and New York. During the 'teens and early twenties he made modernist paintings, was associated with the Synchromist movement, and even briefly attracted the patronage of the irascible Dr. Albert Barnes. But in the late 'twenties and early 'thirties he turned his eye on the American scene, and along with Grant Wood, became the leader of the Regionalist movement and arguably the most widely quoted and publicized American artist of the 1930s.
A figure of varied talents, Benton penned a best-selling autobiography, An Artist in America. Remarkably—or perhaps not so remarkably for those who have looked closely at Benton's paintings—he was also the teacher of Jackson Pollock, and retained a close, intense, and sometimes turbulent relationship with Pollock up to the time of Pollock's death.
Flood Disaster stunningly illustrates Benton's skill at creating paintings that speak clearly and powerfully to a broad popular audience, not merely to the elite. At the same time, it's a chillingly modern work, with an angular, disjunctive, cubistic composition that seems to deconstruct normal reality and speaks to the anxieties of the modern age. The story of its creation has intriguingly varied dimensions. It dramatizes Benton's sympathy for the poor and dispossessed, his political savvy, his uncanny merchandizing skill, his knack for forming alliances and friendships with politicians and art patrons, and even his literary gifts—for what other painter of the time was writing essays for The New Republic?
Kansas City was hit by three major floods during the 20th century: in 1903, 1951, and 1993. Of these, the flood of 1951 wreaked the most devastating damage. Initial flooding began in June 1951, when there were heavy rains, and reached its worst stage between July 9 and July 13, when between 8 and 16 inches fell on the region. The flood levels reached their height on July 13, when the Missouri River and Kansas River (also known as the Kaw) swelled to seventy times their normal size, and about four times their normal width, sweeping over bridges and bursting levees, submerging the interstate highway, placing the airport and 200 miles of railroad lines underwater, and creating the greatest flood destruction ever experienced in the United States up to that date. At the height of the rampage, over a million acres in Kansas were flooded and just under a million in Missouri. Seventeen people were killed and 518,500 people were displaced: 385,000 in Kansas and another 150,000 in Missouri. 30,000 to 40,000 homes were flooded, of which 10,000 to 15,000 were destroyed or damaged beyond repair. 16,000 head of livestock were lost and 10,000 miles of fences were destroyed—enough to skirt the perimeter of the United States. After July 13 the waters began to recede, but dikes and levees continued to collapse after that date. On July 14, for example, a Missouri river dike collapsed pouring water into the Fairfax industrial district of Kansas City, Kansas.
As the waters receded, the extent of the flood damage, initially estimated at half a million or three quarters of a million dollars, began to sink in. On August 21, when Truman requested flood relief from Congress, he estimated the cost at over a billion dollars in damage, and an equal amount in lost income, noting that the final estimate would probably be even greater.
The greatest human suffering occurred in the Argentine and Armourdale areas--working class neighborhoods for those who worked in the bottoms, located across the river to the north. In these areas the flood ran over the top of the dikes, 15,000 people were evacuated, and the water rose to the rooftop level of the houses. In one sector, an oil storage tank facility caught fire and a dozen tanks of gasoline, Diesel oil, and naphtha exploded at intervals. The fire burned for three days, completely destroying a seven-block area. At the height of the disaster The New York Times quoted a man of seventy who responded to the question, "Where is your home?" with the statement, "I don't know. The last I saw of it, it was going downstream."
Thomas Hart Benton and the Flood
Thomas Hart Benton's painting Flood Disaster, also known as Homecoming—Kaw Valley, was painted in response to this calamity, in a conscious effort to enlist popular and Congressional support for a flood relief program. It was one of two efforts he made during his lifetime to produce art in service of an urgent political cause—the other being the series Year of Peril which he created in 1941, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, to awaken America to the danger of Fascist attack.
Benton was keenly aware of the destructive power of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers. A few years earlier, in 1947, when Benton had made an allegorical painting of Kansas City for the Harzfeld Department Store (now in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art) he had chosen as his subject the struggle between Hercules and the bull Achelous, who symbolized the bull-like force of an uncontrollable river. Indeed, the 1951 flood was the second disaster of its type that Benton had witnessed. In 1936, shortly after completing his Missouri mural, Benton had visited southeastern Missouri, where spring rains had pushed the Mississippi River over its banks, and made sketches of the disaster which were published in the Kansas City Star. As he wrote at the time, "Description can give no sense of the dread realities of flood misery—the cold mud, the lost goods, the homeless animals, the dreary standing around of destitute people." (Thomas Hart Benton, An Artist in America, New York, 1936, p. 146.)
In 1951, however, when the flood struck, Benton was summering on Martha's Vineyard, and he did not return to Kansas City until October 1. By that time the waters had receded, but the task of clean-up and economic recovery was still underway. As he noted later, in an article in The New Republic, the main traffic arteries had by then been reopened and many businesses were starting up again. As he wrote:
In the stockyard areas occasional fences were still down, building still set awry, but the cattle were coming in from the railroad sidings. Steel workers were changing new girders for flood-twisted old ones as roofs were replaced on scores of buildings whose walls and foundations had been strong enough to resist the currents. Everywhere energetic men were getting the better of their fate.
But if you wandered onto the side streets, it was a different story, particularly in the hard-hit Argentine and Armourdale Districts:
Going, however, from the recovering business arteries over into the miles of side streets where had lived the people whose daily work in the bottom-land industries helped so largely to sustain these arteries, I saw quickly that the Kansas City Star's brave slogan—"You Can't Down the People of Kansas City"—needed a considerable measure of qualification. It was true, but it was a damn sight truer for those Kansas Citians who by luck, or smart dealing, had accumulated a little surplus capital or credit at the banks than for those who had not. And over in these side streets of the working people it was plain that the vast majority had not. For the men and women of this majority, however, strong their wills, recovery in terms of "cost what it might" was unthinkable.
Down block after desolated block, the muck covered wrecks of their homes. Condemnation signs were tacked to miles of these split and twisted shells of family memory.
In moldy underlying crevices and corners, appeared the ruined enamel of stoves, washing machines, bath tubs and the remains of chairs, couches, beds and children's playthings. Here and there in the paling autumn sun men and women pecked at mountains of disaster with shingle hatchets and garden shovels.
Eager to aid in the relief effort, Benton toured the flood-damaged areas and conceived the notion of creating a painting which would help bring home to America the extent of the flood damage, as well as producing a lithograph to distribute to every member of the U. S. Congress, to sway them to vote for a generous program of flood relief.
Flood Disaster portrays a group of wrecked houses in the Armourdale district, which Benton visited at least four times to make sketches. The main elements of the painting—the toppled houses and the tree with a stovepipe caught in its branches—are things that he directly recorded there, as is evident from a drawing in the Benton estate (The Benton Trust, Trust Division, UMB Bank, Kansas City) which was surely made right on the scene. (See Karal Ann Marling, Tom Benton and His Drawings, 1983, page 99, pl. 7-3).
Comparing the drawing with the painting shows Benton's skill in transforming what he actually observed into an effective artistic statement. While the wrecked houses in the painting are very similar, in subtle ways Benton changed their angles or proportions for dramatic effect— for example, increasing the height of the house on the left, and increasing the tilt of the house on the right.
Even more significant, he added elements to the foreground that create a new sense of human drama —a mangled car and a washing machine covered in mud, which give a more intimate dimension to the wreckage; and, most significant, three figures (a couple and a child) who have returned to inspect the pathetic remnants of their home and endow the scene with a sense of human suffering and loss. With loving attention he added a frayed curtain to the attic window on the left, a window which no longer looks into the house since the body of the house is no longer there, but out to the blue sky.
The theme of a tragic homecoming may have come to mind in part because Benton had explored the theme earlier in his 1939 print and 1943 painting of The Prodigal Son (Dallas Museum of Art), showing a man standing mournfully in front of a ruined home. While contemporary newspaper accounts don't specify who posed for these foreground figures, the woman in the left foreground resembles Benton's wife Rita, while the young girl resembled his daughter Jessie, who was twelve at the time, about the same age as the figure in the painting.
Finally, Benton relocated the scene to the shore of the Kansas River, looking towards Kansas City, Missouri, thus indicating the source of the disaster and also evoking a more specific sense of geographical place. Visible at the far left is what was then the tallest building in Kansas City-- The Kansas City Power and Light Building (which he had included earlier, in 1936, in the Kansas City panel of his mural of A Social History of Missouri at the State Capitol in Jefferson City).
Inspired in part by George Caleb Bingham, the most distinguished 19th century artist from Missouri, who had produced a lithograph of Order Number 11 that had swayed an election in Illinois, Benton also produced a lithograph of the design. His goal was to influence the thinking of members of Congress, who were debating a bill to provide funding for flood relief. Benton's hope was that they would expand the appropriation to assist those whose homes had been devastated. On October 13 Benton sent a copy of the print to every member of Congress, a number which is set by law at 435 (Public Law 62-5 of 1911) as well as to every member of the U. S. Senate, which then totaled 96. The edition was thus one of 531 plus an unknown number of artist's proofs. Contemporary accounts describe the print as a "lithograph," but it was apparently an offset lithograph rather than a stone lithograph, and is thus omitted from Creekmore Fath's catalogue of Benton's lithographs. Each print was pencil-signed. Because this print is now extremely rare, it sells at auction for a price closely similar to that of Benton's other prints. Accompanying each print was a letter which read as follows:
'The Foxes,' you will remember from your Sunday school days, 'have their holes and the birds of the air have nests: but the Son of Man hath nowhere to lay His head." It is now more than eighty days since the flood waters hit the valleys out here. Eighty days of wreck, ruin, muck—and stink! The attached lithograph shows what things are like, as of this day, for thousands of poor, hopeless 'Sons of Man' in the Kaw river basin. It was made for you and your fellow members of the eighty-second Congress. It is not for sale. It is given you in the hope that you'll forget the academics of precedent and get out a new bill which will relieve the human side of this rotting catastrophe.
Thomas H. Benton. ("Havoc Stirs an Artist," Kansas City Star, October 14, 1951.)
Benton's gesture was widely publicized. On October 15, for example, The New York Times ran an Associated Press Wire-photo showing him holding the lithograph while he looked at his painting and his initial sketch on the wall in front of him. Despite his efforts, however, the expanded appropriation did not pass; and many of the signed lithographs ended up in Congressional wastebaskets. On October 24, 1951, President Truman signed a $113,000,000 flood relief bill for the Kansas-Missouri area, but criticized Congress for failing to approve a proposal for Federal insurance against future flood damage and for failing to provide adequate assistance to those whose homes had been devastated.
On November 19, 1951, a reproduction of Benton's print appeared on the cover of The New Republic, along with an eloquent four-page article by Benton about the need for flood relief. By this time, however, the relief bill he had hoped for had already been defeated. As Benton reported:
So I made the lithograph and sent a signed impression to every Senator and every Representative. The results are known. A large number went into the waste baskets of the Capitol. Those that didn't had, as I've said, no effect. The Senate passed the House bill without amendment. President Truman signed the bill on October 24. He pointed out its inadequacy.
Benton ended the essay on an uncharacteristically somber note:
Winter is not far off out here. Down in the river valley below my house, and not so far away either, a man and two boys, 10 and 12 years old, are hacking away at the mud-coated and rotted plaster of a four-room house. It is a lucky house. It stands, and it has a roof of sorts. But it is approached through a trench carved in cracked and hardened mud three feet high and it is surrounded by the yet flood-stinking wrecks of other houses which were not lucky. The man and his wife have four children besides the boys. At present they live in a one-basement room. "We gotta get in here before it gets cold," the man says. They won't do it. Nor will thousands like them who face the same kind of imperative.
On October 19, 1951, the very day that the article in The New Republic appeared, The Kansas City Star ran a picture of Representative Richard Bolling, Missouri Democrat, spreading out on his desk signed copies of Benton's lithograph that he had salvaged from the trash. The story reported that: "All copies he can salvage and collect will be auctioned in Kansas City for the relief of flood victims." ("The representative Picks Up Some Valuable Trash" Kansas City Star, October 19, 1951.)
The sad failure of so many Congressman to appreciate the value of art, in turn inspired some doggerel verse that was published a few days later in The Kansas Star under the heading: "A Congresssman Speaks (and Tosses the Benton Lithographs into the Wastebasket)." A very brief excerpt conveys the poetic qualities of this effusion:
Who is this drooling sob-sister artist, Thomas Hart Benton,
Drawing pictures of flood-hit farms and ruined homes?
What makes him think Kansas's troubles
Are worse than London's, Seoul's, Cairo's, or Rome's....
Obviously this guy Benton is trying to pressure us for cash,
And that's why I say I'm throwing away his so-called artwork.
It is only propaganda and trash.
A follow-up story, however, reported that some Congressmen had been moved by Benton's gesture.
Not every congressman threw his flood picture in the waste basket, Thomas Hart Benton, artist, knows now for sure.... About sixty congressmen have written Benton, to date, acknowledging receipt of the picture and thanking him. Each lithograph was signed by the noted artist and was offered as a gift to spur relief measures. 'Many wrote notes of agreement with my hope that help would be forthcoming to these hard-hit people,' Benton said today, 'and it puzzles me why the aid bill fell through; maybe they can do something in the future.' ("Some Kept Benton Picture," The Kansas City Star, October 23, 1951.)
On November 27 still another follow-up story in The Kansas City Star reported that the prints by Benton recovered from congressional wastebaskets had been auctioned at the Hotel Phillips in Kansas City to raise funds for flood relief. A photograph that accompanied the story showed Benton, Representative Bolling (who had rescued Benton's prints from the trash) and Billy Edwards, the auctioneer. ("Art was sold by Auction," The Kansas City Star, November 27, 1951.)
In December of 1951, Benton staged an exhibition of his work at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, and once again Benton's Flood Disaster painting received widespread publicity. For example, it was reproduced and discussed in an article in Newsweek on December 3, 1951, page 57. In fact, Benton's effort to sway Congress may not have been entirely wasted. Seven months later, on May 21, 1952, the House voted another $55 million in flood relief.
The provenance of the painting adds to its interest for its first owners were Louis and Rheta Sosland—notable art collectors, close personal friends of Benton, and members of a distinguished Kansas City family whose saga is an amazing American success story. Louis was the son of Henry Sosland, who was born in Russia in 1860, emigrated to Kansas City in 1890, and finally saved enough money to bring his wife Rosa (1886-1943) and three oldest sons, Morris, Abraham, and Samuel, to join him in 1894. Henry died in Kansas City in 1930. Five of Henry's eight children remained in Kansas City: Samuel (1889-1983), David (1895-1968), Benjamin (1896-1972), Sanders (1899-1970), Louis (1903-1976), and Hymie (1904-1992). They joined together to create Sosland Publishing, which still exists today and has become the leading publisher of trade magazines on agriculture and the food industry. They were also involved in related businesses, such as printing and making envelopes. David was a founder of the technology company, Morton-Thiokol.
Samuel Sosland and Sanders Sosland both created endowed positions at the Nelson-Atkins Museum: The Samuel Sosland Curator of American Art and The Sanders Sosland Curator of Contemporary Art. All five brothers became significant art collectors as well as friends and patrons of Thomas Hart Benton.
Morton Sosland, the current President of Sosland Publishing, and a former Director of the Hall Family Foundation, recalls of the five brothers that: "Tom was someone they all knew personally. They were very close and spent a lot of time together. Family parties and that kind of thing. When Tom needed money they'd buy a painting. Or when Rita said they needed money they'd buy a painting." (Telephone interview with Henry Adams, March 10, 2011).
While all five brothers collected, Louis was the one who had the most distinguished art collection, in large part due to his wife Rheta, who became a serious connoisseur. "They really enjoyed art together, and they got to know painters," Morton Sosland recalls. Their collection included a major painting by Wayne Thiebaud and a Georgia O'Keeffe painting of Apple Blossoms, which Rheta purchased directly from Alfred Stieglitz, and which is now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. When Benton created Flood Disaster, it immediately caught their eye. While Louis was born after the event, he grew up with stories of the 1903 flood, when the Sosland family lived in a house in the West Bottoms and was rescued from a second floor window by firemen in a boat. As Morton Sosland recalls: "When Tom created that painting I can remember the excitement in town. The Star had a big story about it. Rheta and Louis stepped forward and bought it right away."