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.
During a career spanning four decades, Thomas Hart Benton took as his subject the spirit, vitality and strength of the American people and landscape. As the twentieth century’s champion of rural America, Benton portrayed the unique locales he visited on his travels throughout the country, along with their honest and hardworking inhabitants. In Navajo Sand, inspired by his trip to New Mexico, the majestic mountains and loan cowboy provide the perfect subject to further Benton’s mission of creating a uniquely American art.
Benton’s patriotic commitment to his country likely had its roots in a family political tradition, being the son of a Missouri politician. From an early age, he was committed to finding a human purpose in his artwork and rejected notions of “art for art’s sake.” Indeed, his traditional education at the Chicago Art Institute and in Paris did not satisfy his quest to find purpose for his art. Surprisingly, he finally found direction 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, with Benton’s first American genre paintings coming in 1920 while summering on Martha’s Vineyard. According to Benton, members of a group that he associated with there “…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) To avoid this decadence, Benton believed that he had to seek inspiration from within America’s borders rather than looking abroad to Europe. As such, to reflect American themes and values in his art, Benton traveled throughout the interior of the country and developed glorified paintings of the American landscape and its inhabitants that gave comfort and pride to the nation.
From 1925 to 1928, Benton spent much of his time on sketching tours, in some instances traveling for six months at a time. On these trips, the artist produced numerous drawings that he used in his studio as the basis for clay models, which in turn were employed as studies when he finally undertook an easel painting. During one of these trips to the Texas Panhandle in 1926, Benton found time for an excursion to Santa Fe, New Mexico. His experience in this uniquely American locale was likely the inspiration for the present work. In Navajo Sand Benton seizes on the mythic, popular understanding of the American West and its cowboys and Indians, combining it with his consistent commitment to truth in his regional subjects. Here, while depicting a figure that could easily be overly romanticized, Benton renders his Navajo herder as a modern American, with great dignity, as he watches over his flock. Such sympathetic depictions of the toiling farmer, herder or laborer are perhaps Benton’s most renowned works, offering a celebratory view of an idyllic American way of life.
In Navajo Sand, however, the land is as much the subject as the man. As seen here, Benton’s best works feature rhythmic, rolling landscapes in which he deftly captures the unique characteristics of the land while creating a cohesive setting for his figural subjects. Matthew Baigell writes of such landscapes, “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) In the present work, Benton truly integrates his figure into the landscape, with the stylized human form mimicking the curves of the rolling hills, skyline and cloud formations in the sky. These parallel shapes are organized into horizontal bands, creating a composition of linear blocks similar to the approach of several American and European Modernist artists of the era. Benton, however, clearly chose a more realistic, figurative approach to render his distinct version of the American spirit. While he depicts a literal subject here, he imbues that subject with a tangible sense of motion by using sinuous line, fluid expressive brushwork and, as is typical of Benton’s best paintings, a spiraling configuration that pulls each individual element into a unifying visual rhythm.
By the 1930s, the success of Benton’s unique style and distinctly American subject established the painter as an art world star, his self-portrait gracing the cover of Time magazine in 1934. 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 throughout the American heartland, gathering material for future paintings. World War II accelerated the transformation of this land. The country became an industrial superpower, and 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) When reconsidering and brightening the color palette of Navajo Sand in 1966, Benton must surely have found solace in this earlier composition, reflecting fondly on the state of America at the time of the work’s original execution in 1926. Within the context of this later period of his career, Benton’s view of the American West in Navajo Sand strongly evoked his and the nation’s increasing nostalgia for a rural America under threat from industrialization and agricultural mechanization.