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Burt Lancaster as "The Kentuckian"

Burt Lancaster as "The Kentuckian"
signed and dated 'Benton '54' (lower right)
oil on gessoed canvas laid down on masonite
13 1⁄4 x 12 3⁄4 in. (33.7 x 32.4 cm.)
Painted in 1954.
The artist.
Burt Lancaster, Los Angeles, California, acquired directly from the above.
Estate of the above.
Sotheby’s, New York, 25 May 1995, lot 120, sold by the above.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.
Peabody Essex Museum, American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, exhibition catalogue, Salem, Massachusetts, 2017, p. 39, illustrated.
Los Angeles, California, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, n.d.
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.

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Tylee Abbott
Tylee Abbott Vice President, Head of American Art

Lot Essay

The present work relates to Thomas Hart Benton’s large-scale oil The Kentuckian in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which was commissioned by Norma Productions as a promotion for their film of the same name, directed by and starring Burt Lancaster. The film follows the journey of widower “Big Eli,” played by Lancaster, and his son “Little Eli,” played by Donald MacDonald, as they set off from Kentucky travelling West to make a new life. Benton’s The Kentuckian depicts Big Eli and Little Eli and their faithful hound symbolically facing left toward the implied freedoms of the West. Austen Barren Bailly writes, “A distant undulating landscape beckons the frontiersman to this mythic realm, where blue skies, freedom, and new beginnings await.” (American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, exhibition catalogue, Salem, Massachusetts, 2017, p. 39)

Bailly continues, “Lancaster invited Benton on set to observe filming and make studies of the two actors. Benton had Lancaster sit for him, and he used the elaborate series of preparatory studies, drawings and oil sketches to complete a full-length portrait.” (American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, exhibition catalogue, Salem, Massachusetts, 2017, p. 39) As seen in an archival photo that shows the present work on Benton's easel as Lancaster poses for him, Burt Lancaster as “The Kentuckian” was painted from life, and later entered Burt Lancaster’s personal collection. The cinematic quality within Benton’s spirited pictures of the American frontier and its heroes lends itself in his depiction of Lancaster as the brave protagonist of the film.

The Kentuckian was Benton’s final official Hollywood commission, after a long and fruitful relationship with the film industry. As an ambitious young painter, Benton started out in the silent films industry as early as the 1910s, painting sets in what was known as the “first Hollywood” in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Aligning himself early on with key issues being explored by the film industry, such as the modern American identity, Benton developed an unparalleled talent for storytelling in his stylized depictions of American life as his rise as an artist mirrored the Golden Age of Hollywood. Benton’s first real introduction to Hollywood came in 1937 on a commission from Life magazine to paint his epic Hollywood mural (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 1937-38). By that time, his public murals as well as his appearance on the cover of Time magazine in 1934 had already garnered him the attention of a celebrity, and his status led him to important commissions for movies produced by the likes of John Ford, Walter Wanger and Darryl F. Zanuck. The artist’s penchant for blending popular culture with high art made him a popular choice in Hollywood, and moreover, his authentic painting style and genuine interest in his subjects gives his work great staying power.

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