Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)
Property from an Important Mid-Atlantic Collection
Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)

Cotton Picking and Loading

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)
Cotton Picking and Loading
indistinctly signed (lower left)--incised 'Benton' (lower right)--signed again and dated '44' (on the reverse)
oil on tin
12 ¼ x 18 ¾ in. (31.1 x 47.6 cm.)
Private collection, New York.
Private collection, New Jersey, circa mid-1970s.
Spanierman Gallery, New York.
Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, Chicago, Illinois, 22 May 1996, lot 224.
Private collection, California, 1997.
Sotheby's, New York, 3 December 2009, lot 26.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.

Lot Essay

As the twentieth century's champion of rural America, Thomas Hart Benton portrayed the honest and hardworking people that he met during his travels throughout the country. After developing his personal style in the late teens, he used it thereafter to portray “the scenes, behaviors, and mythologies of American life.” (T.H. Benton, “An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography,” Kansas Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 2, Spring 1969, p. 66) Cotton farming was central to the American South’s economy, and, in Cotton Picking and Loading, Benton depicts the farmers who kept this industry running.

Benton’s dissatisfaction with the modern notion of ‘art for art’s sake,’ led him to look to American life for inspiration. In May of 1926, he returned to his home state of Missouri, where he undertook a three-week walking trip through the Ozark Hills, drawing as he went. “This was the beginning of those studies of the American rural scene which would hold so much of my interest for the next fifteen years. It was the beginning of what came to be called my ‘Regionalism.’” (An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography, p. 58) It was also the beginning of many sketching trips through rural America. In the summer of 1928, along with a young student friend Bill Hayden, Benton toured the cotton, rice and sugar country of the Deep South. Benton accumulated hundreds of drawings from this trip and showed many of them later that fall at the Delphic Gallery in New York.

Years later, Benton returned to these drawings as inspiration for his easel paintings, including Cotton Picking and Loading, which he painted in 1944. Here, Benton focuses on the dignity and exertion of the cotton pickers as they endure backbreaking labor in the southern summer heat. In the foreground, a worker in a red shirt loads baskets full of cotton to hand to his co-worker in the horse-drawn wagon, while more workers are bent over picking cotton in the background. The composition is balanced with two converging perspective lines: one beginning on the left with the wagon and ending with the shed in the upper right and the other beginning with the worker in red, through the horses’ heads and ending with the trees in the upper left. Benton imbues the work with a sense of motion through his use of sinuous lines, expressive brushwork and rich color.

Cotton farming was one of Benton’s most important subjects as the rapid industrialization of the nation during World War II changed the American landscape. In the present work, Benton adeptly captures the toiling of these men, who are likely sharecroppers. Sharecropping became widespread in Reconstruction-era South and increased during the Depression following the failure of many small farms. Sharecropping, and especially cotton sharecropping, became a symbol of economic and racial injustice. Thus, Cotton Picking and Loading is as much as political statement as it is a wonderful example of Benton’s Regionalism.

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.

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