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White Horse

Benton, T.H.
White Horse
signed and dated 'Benton '55' and inscribed with title (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
22 x 30 in. (55.9 x 76.2 cm.)
Painted in 1955.
Mr. and Mrs. Allan Kander, Washington, D.C.
Mr. Meyerson, New York.
Sotheby Parke-Bernet, New York, 18 November 1965, lot 104, sold by the above.
Acquired by the late owners from the above.
Lawrence, Kansas, University of Kansas Museum of Art, Thomas Hart Benton: A Retrospective Exhibition, April 12-May 18, 1958, no. 63.
Further Details
This work will be included in the forthcoming 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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Lot Essay

Among America’s greatest visual storytellers, Thomas Hart Benton captured the majesty and mythology of the heartland in his stunning paintings of the nation’s landscape and its people. While the Regionalist master is often associated with his depictions of the Midwest and his home state of Missouri, Benton’s greatest achievements include his explorations of the identity of the “Modern West.” Benton first traveled West in 1926, and a 1948 trip through New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming inspired him to focus on the Far West as a primary inspiration for his work. In the 1950s and 60s, he regularly visited the region for extended periods to view its mesmerizing natural landforms, from the Southwest and Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains, including the Grand Tetons. Benton scholar Matthew Baigell describes, “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...these works glorify ‘America the Beautiful,’ a dream America where every prospect pleases.” (Thomas Hart Benton, New York, 1973, p. 183) Indeed, the present work White Horse from 1955 distills Benton’s experiences on the plains of Utah into lyrical bands of rich color that reverberate with the artist’s love for the distinct rhythm of the region.

Important Western oil paintings from this period are rare to market, as many significant examples are in museum collections, including Desert Still Life (1951, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri), Open Country (1952, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), The Sheepherder (1957, American Museum of Western Art, Denver, Colorado) and Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek (1967, Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis, Indiana). As in those related works, in White Horse Benton intensifies the forms and colors of the impressive landscape, elevating the Utah topography—including a distinct alkaline salt pool—into a deeply saturated and modernly stylized visual poem. As Baigell writes, “Although these works were painted in his studio, his ability to capture the clear quality of Western light was remarkable. Combined with his penchant for employing broad contours…this facility enabled him to approximate both the poster-bright colors of these upland areas and the sensuous curves of the terrain.” (Thomas Hart Benton, New York, 1973, p. 187)

In fact, Benton’s intensification of the landscape in his Modernist paintings can be seen to parallel Hollywood’s modernization of Westerns on the silver screen during this time. Benton himself was involved with the movie industry, including visiting the Monument Valley, Utah, film set and creating promotional artwork for the 1940 Western The Long Voyage Home starring John Wayne. His last official Hollywood commission was for Burt Lancaster’s 1955 The Kentuckian. In the catalogue for the 2015-16 exhibition Thomas Hart Benton: American Epics and Hollywood, curator Austen Barron Bailly connects the pure sincerity of Benton’s landscape paintings in this era—as compared to his prior jam-packed, figural mural paintings—to a similar trend in Western films of the period toward truer storytelling with a deeper sensibility. Bailly explains, “Benton liberated these landscape compositions from the layers of props and details, narrative threads, or CinemaScope effects that had defined his historical murals…for his own modern westerns, Benton produced Technicolor-tinged landscapes that feel utterly cinematic...Benton’s rhythmic arrangements of clouds, lakes, snow, trees and mountain passes…coalesce within a mise-en-scène so intensely colored and selectively composed that it matched, even outdid, Hollywood’s best efforts.” (Thomas Hart Benton: American Epics and Hollywood, Salem, Massachusetts, 2015, pp. 41-42)

Adding to the cinematic dynamism of White Horse is Benton’s quintessential spiraling compositional design, using layers of sinuous lines executed with fluid brushwork to create a palpable sense of motion and unifying rhythm. Benton called this method “the bump and hollow.” As Louis Menand summarizes, “It’s how you know you’re looking at a Benton. His paintings, whatever their subject matter, are structured as rows of highly contoured forms, with exaggerated chiaroscuro to mimic three-dimensionality. His practice was to create a complete maquette of the scene he wanted to paint…light it dramatically, and then copy it onto the canvas.” (“The Bump and the Hollow of Thomas Hart Benton,” The New Yorker, 1 July 2015) In White Horse, the outlines of distant hills form almost, but not quite, parallel waves, which progress along the color spectrum from indigo-violet to bright red, orange and yellow. In the grassy foreground and brilliant azure sky, Benton plays with looser, swirling forms that distort the visual field to add the illusion of depth to the picture plane.

Benton scholar Henry Adams writes of this segment of Benton’s oeuvre, “The openness of the western landscape, and the clarity of the light, gives these paintings a quality of serenity—as if they represented a clearing of the air.” (unpublished letter, circa 2012) Indeed, White Horse presents a refreshing and refined version of the rural American life that Benton championed throughout his career. The present painting affirms Benton’s place not only as a master of Regionalism, but also deservedly among the annals of great American Modernist painters, such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley, who created new twentieth-century visions of the enduring beauty of the American West.

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