Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)
The New Pony
signed and dated 'Benton/58-' (lower right)
tempera and oil on canvas laid down on board
25¾ x 36¾ in. (65.4 x 93.3 cm.)
The artist.
Melvin Campbell, York, Pennsylvania, acquired from the above, 1958.
Harriet Campbell, wife of the above, by descent.
Douglas Campbell, son of the above, by descent.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.
Lawrence, Kansas, University of Kansas Museum of Art, Thomas Hart Benton, April 12-May 18, 1958.

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Lot Essay

Dr. Henry Adams writes of The New Pony, "The painting records an experience of 1939. In the late summer of 1939 Benton took a trip through Nebraska, the Dakotas, Eastern Wyoming and Montana with Colonel Graham of the United States Army, who was the father of one of his students, Robert Macdonald Graham. The purpose of the trip was to purchase quarter horses for the French light artillery. During the trip, Benton made a number of drawings, several of which later provided the basis for paintings and lithographs. The lithographs include The Fence Mender, 1940, Nebraska Evening, 1941, and The Corral, 1948.

Somewhere along this journey, very likely in [W]estern Nebraska, Benton made a series of about five sketches of some wranglers breaking in a new pony, showing the process step-by-step. [The New Pony] is related to the fifth of these drawings, New Pony #5, 16 x 10 inches (present location unknown). The arrangements of the figures, and all the other major elements of the painting, follow the drawing very closely. But it obviously took great skill for Benton to work out how to handle the areas that are blank in the drawing--for example, to fill in the sky and create a sense of how the color changes as the land recedes into the distance.

The painting is dated 1958 and must have been completed shortly before the retrospective exhibition at the University of Kansas Museum of Art in that year. It seems to me very likely that Benton started the painting years earlier, when he was working on other paintings and lithographs related to the same sketching trip, although establishing whether this hypothesis is correct would require very careful technical examination of the piece.

As is typical of Benton's work, the composition has a spiraling configuration, which circles around a vertical pole--in this case established by the standing cowboy just to the left of the pony and rider. All the elements in the painting are tied to this pattern, and are pulled into a unifying scheme of visual rhythm. While Benton is not usually thought of in this way, there's an almost surrealist feeling to the way he handles the forms, and in fact Benton had been interested in Surrealism and the work of figures like Dali since the early 1940s. At an emotional level it seems to me that the painting plays on the contrast between the activity of the figures and the eerie spaciousness and emptiness of the Great Plains setting." (undated letter)

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 and Michael Owen.

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