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Spring Ploughing

Spring Ploughing
signed 'Benton' (lower right)
oil on canvas
22 3/8 x 30 1/4 in. (56.8 x 76.8 cm.)
Painted circa 1940
Associated American Artists, New York.
Mervyn LeRoy, Beverly Hills (acquired from the above, 1941).
Warner LeRoy and Linda LeRoy Janklow (children of the above).
Private collection, Alabama.
Acquired by the late owner, 1999.
"Institute Exhibit Reveals a More Mature Tom Benton," Kansas City Star, March 28, 1941 (illustrated).
E.A. Jewell, "Paintings on View of Thomas Benton" in The New York Times, 9 April 1941, p. 30.
New York, Associated American Artists, Thomas Hart Benton: Recent Works, April 1941.
Portland Art Museum; Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection; Minneapolis Institute of Arts; New Orleans Museum of Art and Seattle Art Museum, Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, October 2015-May 2017, pp. 128-31, no. 31 (illustrated in color, p. 129; detail, p. 131).
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.
Further details
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.

Brought to you by

Max Carter
Max Carter Vice Chairman, 20th and 21st Century Art, Americas

Lot Essay

As the twentieth century’s champion of rural America, Thomas Hart Benton portrayed the honest and hardworking communities he met during his travels throughout the nation. Indeed, his imagery exudes a palpable admiration for and pride in not only the American people but also the diverse country-sides and cityscapes he visited. Depicting the iconic toiling farmer, likely in the artist’s beloved Missouri, Spring Ploughing embodies Benton’s celebration of America which earned him the reputation as a leading artist of the American Regionalist movement.
Named after his outspoken great uncle who served as Missouri’s first Senator, and with a father who was a congressional representative, Benton grew up in a politically charged household that fostered a strong sense of nationalism. He found a way to focus his patriotism within his art career 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 style—he was committed to art for a human purpose and, more precisely, an American purpose. To reflect these values in his art, Benton traveled to the heart of the country for inspiration. From 1925 to 1928, the artist spent much of his time on sketching tours, in some instances traveling for six months at a time. In May of 1926, he returned to Missouri and committed to a three-week walking trip through the steep hills and isolated villages of the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Benton recalled, “This was the beginning of those studies of the American rural scene which would hold so much of my interest…It was the beginning of what came to be called my ‘Regionalism’” (“An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography,” Kansas Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 2, Spring 1969, p. 58).
During the Great Depression and World War II, Benton’s glorified paintings of the rural American worker gave comfort and pride to the nation. Spring Ploughing conveys the sense of American optimism at the core of his oeuvre and places the hardworking plowman at the center of the narrative. An important protagonist in Benton’s works, the image of the plowman appeared as early as 1934 in his politically charged Ploughing it Under (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville)—Benton’s response to the controversial Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which paid farmers to destroy their crops and livestock to increase the price of goods. By 1940, the nation was between the end of the devasting dust bowl and the early years of World War II. A symbol of honest and hardworking countrymen standing in the face of these political and economic forces, Benton’s farmer hero appears in some of the artist’s strongest works, including The Hailstorm of 1940 (Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha). In the present work, the blossoming cherry tree and the romanticism of spring, which symbolizes rebirth and the fertility of the land, further underscore Benton’s nationalistic optimism.
Poignant and endearing, in Spring Ploughing, Benton’s sole figure and mule occupy the center of the landscape, with their forms mimicking the curves of the rolling hills and the ominous sky. Benton would model his drawings from his sketching trips into clay sculptures and paint them with black or white pigment to simulate differences in local tone before finally producing his easel paintings. He also studied the twisting compositions of Mannerist and Baroque artists, like Jacopo Pontormo and El Greco, to create spiraling configurations with a sense of visual rhythm. At the same time, Benton organizes his complex composition into horizontal bands of color—a modernist approach also seen in iconic works such as July Hay of 1943 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). These working methods and inspirations lend a unique cinematic quality to his works, as evidenced by the immersive perspective and three-dimensional quality of the forms in the present example. In fact, the original owner of Spring Ploughing, Mervyn Leroy may have been drawn to the image having recently produced the film The Wizard of Oz, set partially in rural Kansas, in 1939.
While Benton’s stylized form of Regionalism was deemed opposed to abstraction—the predominant form of western art in the teens and twenties—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). Bold and visually compelling, yet also fiercely proud of the grit and spirit of the American farmworker, Spring Ploughing exemplifies the Regionalist master’s signature style and passionate vision.

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