As the twentieth century’s champion of rural America, Thomas Hart Benton portrayed the honest and hardworking people he met during his travels throughout the country. Early in his career, Benton studied at the Chicago Art Institute and in Paris; however, these educational settings did not satisfy his quest to find a purpose for his art. Surprisingly, he found direction for his work when he joined the Navy in 1918 and was assigned to sketch the machinery and activities around the base. From then on, the subject of his works took priority over the style. Benton painted his first American genre paintings in 1920 while summering on Martha’s Vineyard. According to Benton, members of a group with which he associated “…believed that the ‘modern’ art growing in the postwar world was lacking in social value and unless it re-attained some of that value, it would soon fall into decadence.” (“An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography,” Kansas Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 2, Spring 1969, p. 52) Benton supported this view and rejected the modernist’s credo of “art for art’s sake.” He was committed to art for a human purpose and, more precisely, an American purpose. To achieve this, Benton believed that he had to seek inspiration from within America’s borders rather than looking abroad to Europe.
With an outspoken great uncle who served as Missouri’s first Senator and a father who was a congressional representative, Benton grew up in a politically charged household that fostered a strong sense of nationalism. To reflect American themes and values in his art, Benton traveled to the heart of the country for inspiration, and during the Great Depression and World War II, his glorified paintings of the American worker gave comfort and pride to the nation. In order to convey the American spirit, Benton chose a realistic and figurative approach. His stylized form of regionalism was deemed opposed to abstraction, the predominate form of western art in the teens and twenties. However, Benton later countered that assumption in his autobiography: “Contrary to general belief, the ‘Regionalist’ movement did not in any way oppose abstract form. It simply wished to put meanings, recognizable American meanings, into some of it.” (“An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography,” p. 77)
From 1925 to 1928, Benton spent much of his time on sketching tours, in some instances traveling for six months at a time. In May of 1926, Benton returned to Missouri and committed to a three-week walking trip through the steep hills and isolated villages of the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Benton recalled, “This was the beginning of those studies of the American rural scene which would hold so much of my interest…It was the beginning of what came to be called my ‘Regionalism’.” (“An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography,” p. 58) On these trips, Benton produced numerous drawings. Back in his studio, he modeled these drawings into clay and painted them with black or white pigment to simulate difference in local tone before finally producing his easel paintings.
Benton left New York in 1935 to move permanently back to his home state of Missouri and up until the 1960s, he continued to make trips around the region, gathering material for future paintings. World War II accelerated the transformation of America into an industrial superpower and with it Benton’s rural America began to vanish. Mathew Baigell notes, “By the 1950s and certainly in the 1960s, Benton could no longer insinuate himself easily into conversations; people had become leery of strangers, and the old roads had, as often as not, been paved or even turned into four lane highways. As a result, his ability to feel his way into both the contemporary situation and the past history of an area, as well as to record the typical appearance of a region’s inhabitants, simply evaporated.” (Thomas Hart Benton, New York, 1973, p. 178) Benton’s romantic view in Ozark Autumn reflects his and the nation’s fondness and increasing nostalgia for an area under threat.
Benton’s sympathetic depictions of the toiling farmer are perhaps his most celebrated works. Much like his iconic painting July Hay (1943, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Ozark Autumn offers an idyllic view of the American way of life. Matthew Baigell writes, “In many ways, though, his more remarkable achievements are the landscapes of this period. In these, it would appear that Benton’s overwhelming love of America found its true outlet—in the streams, hills, and the mountains of the country, populated by people unsuspectingly living out their time, quietly enjoying themselves, living easily on the land, celebrating nothing more than their existence.” (Thomas Hart Benton, New York, 1973, p. 183)
Painted in 1949, Ozark Autumn presents a group of farmers laboriously harvesting corn by hand. Benton focuses on the dignity and exertion of the men as they endure backbreaking labor without the aid of machinery. Benton similarly visited the corn harvesting theme in his America Today mural (1930-1931, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In the Midwest panel, the farmer in the lower left is surrounded by a tractor and combine, symbols of the increasing modernization of farming methods, underscoring the overall theme of industrial progress. Ozark Autumn, painted almost two decades later, pays homage to a simpler time on an American farm.
In Ozark Autumn, Benton integrates the figures into the landscape, with the human form mimicking the curves of the rolling hills and the ominous sky. The composition is organized into horizontal bands of color. This stacking of a landscape into linear blocks was a typical modernist approach used by both European and American artists. The dynamism of the work can also be credited to Benton’s study of the twisting compositions of Mannerist and Baroque artists like Jacopo Pontormo and El Greco. The impression of the sculpture-like painted figures in Michelangelo’s paintings he saw at the Louvre would also remain with Benton and inspire the almost tactile elements in his paintings. As Benton notes, “I would come to draw people and landscapes, even fruits and flowers, much like sculptural carvings.” (“An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography,” p. 48) Benton imbues Ozark Autumn with a sense of motion through his use of sinuous line, expressive brushwork and rich color, and as is typical of Benton’s paintings, the composition has a spiraling configuration, which pulls each individual element into a unifying scheme of visual rhythm. Ozark Autumn is a masterwork of Benton’s signature Regionalist style depicting the picturesque landscape and the inhabitants of his native Midwest.
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.