The present work is the only watercolor sketch for the painting Hail Storm currently in the collection of the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska. There is a pencil sketch of a similar scene on the reverse.
The present work is accompanied by a photocopy of a letter from the artist to Mr. James Smith stating, "This is one of the sketches made for the oil tempera painting 'Hailstorm' in the Jocelyn [sic] Museum at Omaha. You are correct on that score. It is the only one made with watercolor. The others are in pencil. I don't know where they are. If you have a photo of the Jocelyn [sic] Museum pictures you will notice that the mule in the background is the active and that plowman stays with him. It ocurred to me, after I made your watercolor, that no farmer would leave his mule alone in the kind of storm depicted. So I added the figure behind the plow. There is also a streak of lightning in The Omaha picture. As you must know pictures grow. They develop from one thing to another. Your picture is an important point in that kind of growth. Sincerely yours, Thomas H. Benton"
As the twentieth century's champion of rural America, Thomas Hart Benton regularly portrayed the honest and hardworking people that he met during his travels throughout the country. The son of a Missouri politician who passed on his strong patriotic feeling toward his country, Benton loved and attempted to capture in his pictures the spirit, vitality and strength of the people and the landscapes they lived in. "I believe I have wanted, more than anything else, to make pictures, the imagery of which would carry unmistakably American meanings for Americans and for as many of them as possible." (Benton as quoted in M. Baigell, Thomas Hart Benton, New York, 1973, p. 87) Running Before the Storm is a fine articulation of this ideal.
Throughout his life, Benton was keenly aware of the incredible speed with which his nation was developing and he wanted to depict the daily life in rural America instead. After a rich period of achievement in the 1930s, the artist turned to more contemporary and serious subject matter in the 1940s, namely World War II. However, in contrast to the highly charged paintings with overt political content that Benton painted at this time, Running Before the Storm is a glorification of simple life in America and a return to the artist's preferred subject matter. "Much as he struggled to keep up with the young soldiers, Benton felt most at home with the subjects of an earlier period. Throughout the early forties, concurrently with these war-related pictures, he continued to paint peaceful rural subjects." (H., Adams, Thomas Hart Benton, An American Original, New York, 1989, p. 316)
In Running Before the Storm, Benton portrays the farmer and his horse with strength and dignity. The farmer's obscured face, common in Benton's work, renders him an idealization of the agrarian life, while his exaggerated hands signify the American work ethic. Thus in his simplicity, the farmer epitomizes the virtues of the nation. The detail and variegated colors of his signature undulating landscape make it an integral part of the scene rather than just a backdrop for the action. In his characteristic style, having reduced his composition to a few key elements and omitting all superfluous detail, Benton makes the strongest impact upon his viewer.
Running Before the Storm champions Benton's concern with "symbolizing everyday events and the lives of ordinary people, he sought the archetypal in the commonplace and tried to invest the average with mythic properties." (Thomas Hart Benton, p. 87)
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 and Michael Owen.