Thomas Hart Benton's reputation as America's leading muralist was established by the widely published and critically acclaimed mural cycle entitled America Today. Completed in 1931 for the New School of Social Research in New York, America Today focused, as Emily Braun notes, "on the technological urge transforming the nation's social and cultural fabric." (Thomas Hart Benton, The America Today Murals, New York, 1985, p. 11). Instruments of Power is considered the most important panel in this mural cycle. As the artist's first mural, the present study offers a rare glimpse of Benton's artistic methods and illustrates his critical steps to executing one of the nation's most important murals.
During the late 1920s, The New School for Social research was able to procure adequate financial support to build a permanent home, designed by the architect Joseph Urban, at 55 West 12th Street. In 1930, Benton received the commission to paint a mural for the board of director's room located on the third floor. Benton conceived the mural in nine panels that ran along the walls of the room; the west wall contained a sequence of three panels entitled Deep South, Midwest and Changing West. The east wall depicted City Building, Steel and Coal and the north wall on either side of the entrance way were City Activities with Dance Hall and City Activities with Subway. The central panel, which spanned the entire wall that directly faced the viewer upon entering the room was Instruments of Power.
Braun describes Instruments of Power as "announc[ing] the overall theme of the country's rapid progress through technological might. Benton gathers the prime movers of industrial power: steam, falling water, electricity, internal combustion. Electricity is represented by the raw energy of water rushing from the spillway of a concrete dam, the high tension line and the sleek silver curves of a turbine. In the center of the panel Benton renders a cross section of an internal combustion engine-the most advanced generator of industrial power-with its gases ignited and churning pistons connected to a drive shaft and wheel. To the left, Benton depicts internal steel rods projecting from the revolutionary building material of reinforced concrete. The rushing forms of train, airplane, and dirigible dramatize the awesome speed and mobility of modern transportation. The panel is galvanized by the giant bolt of lightning, whose nervous energy and stylized forms are echoed by the curves and arcs of the silver interior frame molding. Benton further animates the apotheosis of the machine age with stream lined forms, oblique lines of force and a radiating centrifugal composition.
Instruments of Power testifies to America's position as the globe's preeminent producer of power. Although the benefits of the machine age were contested in the twenties, many like Benton, believed that technology would guarantee the nation's future as an industrial democracy. In retrospect, the artist wrote that the murals represent "an America in love with the idea of technology but not yet enslaved by it." (The New York Times, Wed. Jun 5, 1968, p. 38) The dynamism of the composition reflected his generations' belief in technology's ability to perpetually reconstruct itself; hence, the steam engine of the railroad seems outmoded by comparison to the electrical generator, itself already surpassed by the internal-combustion engine. Benton's inclusion of an airplane and dirigible reflects the excitement of a decade that witnessed the flights of Charles Lindberg's Spirit of St. Louis, May 20-21, 1927, and the Graf Zeppelin (1928)." (Thomas Hart Benton, The American Today Murals, p. 50)
The present study offers a near complete version for the final mural panel. Though not on the same scale as the final work, the present study conveys an equally powerful image that is infused with the spirit of the tremendous strength of technology.
On the reverse appears a black and white composition of a mural.
This work will be included in the forthcoming Thomas Hart Benton catalogue raisonné being perpared by the Thomas Hart Benton Catalogue Raisonné Foundation.