Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)
Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)

Night Firing of Tobacco

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)
Night Firing of Tobacco
signed 'Benton' (lower right)--signed again and inscribed '"Tobacco Firing" (North Carolina)' (on the reverse)
oil and tempera on board
18 x 29 ¼ in. (45.7 x 74.3 cm.)
Painted in 1943.
Mr. and Mrs. Lelon M. Constable, Kansas City, Missouri.
Fenn Galleries Ltd., Santa Fe, New Mexico.
United Missouri Bank, Kansas City, Missouri, 1979.
Martha Parrish & James Reinish, Inc., New York.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 2000.
C. Fath, The Lithographs of Thomas Hart Benton, Austin, Texas, 1969, p. 134.
M. Baigell, Thomas Hart Benton, New York, 1973, p. 154, no. 107, illustrated.
B. Schondelmeyer, Building a First Class Bank: The Story of United Missouri Bank, Kansas City, Missouri, 1986, p. 25, illustrated.
C.C. Cushny, The Hourglass: The Lives of Michael Francis Burns and Cora Butler Burns, Baltimore, Maryland, 1990, p. 402.
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, Bard College Center, The Edith C. Blum Art Institute, Milton and Sally Avery Center for the Arts; Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University, Center Gallery; Flushing, New York, Queens Museum; Yonkers, New York, Hudson River Museum, Thomas Hart Benton: Chronicler of America's Folk Heritage, November 3, 1984-July 6, 1985, p. 78.
Kansas City, Missouri, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Thomas Hart Benton, Spring 1989.
Indianapolis, Indiana, Indianapolis Museum of Art, American Traditions: Art from the Collections of Culver Alumni, 1825-1945, December 12, 1993-March 6, 1994, pp. 120-21, illustrated.

Lot Essay

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.

With an outspoken great uncle who served as Missouri’s first senator and a father who was a congressional representative, Thomas Hart Benton grew up in a politically charged household that fostered a strong sense of nationalism. Like his relatives, Benton loved the spirit, vitality and strength of the American people and the lands they inhabited, and he sought to present them in his art utilizing a figurative and realistic approach. To reflect American themes and values, Benton traveled to rural areas 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. As the twentieth century’s champion of rural America, in works such as Night Firing of Tobacco, Benton portrayed the honest and hardworking people he met during his visits 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.

However, 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 Night Firing of Tobacco reflects his and the nation’s fondness and increasing nostalgia for an area, and way of life, under threat.

The onset of World War II greatly diminished Benton’s creativity and artistic production, and Baigell writes, "the worsening international situation had begun to pre-empt his usual subject matter, to empty him of painting ideas, as he said, and to diminish the size of his audience." (Thomas Hart Benton, New York, 1975, p.113) However, the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, which incited an intense response from the patriotic Benton, marked the end of his creative dormancy and inspired a period of increased productivity and popular attention. In the war years that followed, “Benton alternated between paintings that commented on the brutality of war and the rural subjects with which he was most comfortable.” (American Traditions, Art from the Collection of Culver Alumni, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1993, p. 120)

In 1941 Benton was approached by the American Tobacco Company and tasked with producing a series of works depicting the various stages of tobacco production: planting, harvesting and curing. Traveling first to tobacco farms in southern Georgia, Benton eventually wound his way through South and North Carolina in search of ideal subject matter. Similar sympathetic depictions of the toiling farmer are perhaps his most celebrated works, and much like his iconic painting July Hay (1943, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Night Firing of Tobacco offers an idyllic view of the American way of life. 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 1943, the same year as July Hay, Night Firing of Tobacco presents a single farmer laboriously tending to his crop during the fire curing process. Benton focuses on the dignity and exertion of the man as he endures his work late into the night and without the aid of machinery. The work is one of very few evening scenes that the artist produced, and as a result, he is able to utilize light and shadow to great effect. The composition is organized into horizontal bands of color. This stacking of a landscape, with its unique undulating contours, 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. Incorporating these various influences, Benton imbues Night Firing Tobacco 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. With its combination of iconic American subject matter and dynamic design, Night Firing of Tobacco is a masterwork of Benton’s signature Regionalist style depicting the picturesque rural landscape and its inhabitants.

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