This work will be included in the forthcoming Thomas Hart Benton catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Thomas Hart Benton Catalogue Raisonné Foundation. Committee Members: Dr. Henry Adams, Jessie Benton, Anthony Benton Gude, Andrew Thompson and Michael Owen.
The present work is a study for Thomas Hart Benton's 23 x 32 in. watercolor Swing Your Partner of 1945 (Private Collection). Demonstrating Benton's penchant for lively dramatic composition, this chaotic scene features a room of energetic figures in a flurry of activity, their caricaturized bodies tumbling through a crowded dance floor. The sinuous forms of the dancers and musicians energize the arrangement, lending a sense of instability to the work. Indeed, the entire room appears to have been tousled and shaken, its occupants on the verge of a mass collision under the blaring lights.
Throughout his work, Benton challenged what it meant to be an artist in America. Forsaking his Parisian modernist training, Benton sought to create work that was authentic to the American experience, seen here in his portrayal of a rural dance. A folk music enthusiast, Benton repeatedly drew on vernacular songs, often using lyrics as titles for his paintings and depicting musicians playing traditional folk instruments. In direct contrast to prevalent themes of American modernization, Benton’s folk scenes offer an undeniable sense of nostalgia, employing a distinctively American visual vocabulary. As Matthew Baigell writes of the artist, “Benton belonged to the last generation of artists who considered seriously the dreams and myths of the country.” (Thomas Hart Benton, New York, 1974, p. 14). The artist’s depiction of a rural Midwestern dance in Swing Your Partner evokes the carefree and untroubled life of small town America, unencumbered by the futile efforts of the modern city.