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

The Plains

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)
The Plains
signed and dated 'Benton '54' (lower left)
tempera on board
19 x 26 ½ in. (48.3 x 67.3 cm.)
The artist.
Private collection, circa 1957-58.
Sotheby's, New York, 6 June 1997, lot 108.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.

Lot Essay

The Great Plains of the American Midwest were a constant source of inspiration for Thomas Hart Benton and were the perfect subject to further his mission of creating a uniquely American art. By the 1930s, Benton was an American art star, his self-portrait gracing the cover of Time magazine in 1934. The Plains of 1954, with its open grassland, cowboy, cattle, windmill and sage brush, combines all of the features of the mythic, popular understanding of the American plains which gained him renown and is a wonderful example of Benton’s unique Regionalism.

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 finally 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 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) 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. To reflect American themes and values in his art, Benton traveled to the heartland. During the Great Depression and World War II, Benton’s glorified paintings of the American worker gave comfort and pride to the nation.

In order to convey the American spirit, Benton chose a more realistic and figurative approach. His stylized form of regionalism was deemed opposed to abstraction, the predominate form of western art in the teens and twenties. However, Benton later countered that assumption in his autobiography: “Contrary to general belief, the ‘Regionalist’ movement did not in any way oppose abstract form. It simply wished to put meanings, recognizable American meanings, into some of it.” (“An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography,” p. 77)

Benton left New York in 1935 to move permanently back to his home state of Missouri. He made repeated trips to the American plains starting in the 1920s through to the 1960s, where he found immense inspiration in what the nineteenth-century Hudson River School artists considered America’s vast wasteland. Of the region, Benton wrote, “For me the great plains have a releasing effect. They make me want to run and shout at the top of my voice. I like their endlessness. I like the way they make human beings appear as the little bugs they really are. I like the way they make thought seem futile….To think out on the great plains, under the immense rolling skies and before the equally immense roll of the earth, becomes a presumptuous absurdity….The universe is unveiled there, stripped to dirt and air, to wind, dust, cloud and the white sun…the plains afford me an immense freedom of spirit.” (An Artist in America, New York, 1951, p. 200)

Painting the plains is a challenge because the sky and weather are such dominant features, but Benton deftly captures its vastness. The solitary cowboy and the three stray cows he has rounded up are mere specks on the open plain. In The Plains, the land becomes more the subject than the man. The composition is organized into horizontal bands of color bisected by a winding road, which is echoed in the clouds. This stacking of a landscape into linear blocks of color was a typical modernist approach used by both the European and American modernists. The dynamism of the work goes back further in history 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. As Benton notes, “I would come to draw people and landscapes, even fruits and flowers, much like sculptural carvings.” (“An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography,” p. 48)

By the 1950s, the cowboy and the open range were being threatened with extinction. Benton’s romantic view in The Plains reflects his and the nation’s fondness and increasing nostalgia for an area under threat from industrialization and farming. The Plains also highlights the co-dependency of the American people and the American landscape. The exact location of the present work is unknown, but it is likely an amalgam of landscapes he saw during his travels. He noted, “My American image is made up of what I have come across, of what was ‘there’ in the time of my experience—not more, no less.” (as quoted in Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original, exhibition catalogue, Kansas City, Missouri, 1989, p. 18)

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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