Progression of Art
Self-Portrait with Rita
Painted in Martha's Vineyard, in this work Benton renounces his earlier experimentation in cubist-inspired abstractions. Standing bare chest alongside his scantily clad wife, Rita, Benton's self-portrait is among the most startling figure subjects of the early 1920s. Here, Benton classicized his own musculature, stressed the highly physical modern male body. The image of Rita conveys Benton's solid knowledge of 16th-century Italian art.
Oil on canvas - National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
City Building (Part of American Today Mural)
Commissioned by New York City's innovative and progressive New School for Social Research, Benton's America Today murals joyfully celebrate an America before the full impact of the Great Depression had been realized. Here, a multi-racial labor force - this in itself is modern and utopian image because of heavily segregated labor in America - busily build the city. Emphasis is placed on the producer, rather than on material consumption. Benton pictures high skyscrapers, which were markers of the new modern city, urbanism, and industrialism. The presence of a ship recalls Benton's earlier work for the US Navy, and reminds us of New York's prominence as a port city. Benton applied wood molding to the canvas to separate one vignette from the other, which gives a modern, cinematic quality to the overall composition. (Benton had earlier worked in the film industry as well.) His rapid compositional shifts in depth between the foreground and deep background recall cinematic effects. In addition to Benton's murals, the New School also commissioned the great Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco to paint a suite of frescoes which complement Benton's tribute to the national by focusing on the international. Standing in front of this monumental and brightly colored image, one senses the city humming and pulsating with new energy.
Distemper, egg tempera, and oil glaze on linen - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY
The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley
The work illustrates an old Ozark folk song of the same name in which a man stabs his wife on account of her supposed infidelity, only to find out later that his suspicion was unfounded. This work is typical of Benton's devotion to sound and music-making in his painting career. Elements of Synchromism - the musical characteristics of color - are evident such as the radiant layered halo connecting the man and wife in the background, which suggests music resonating. Early works by Pollock echo the undulating forms and use of space evident here in his teacher's painting, and in fact, Pollock who was close to Benton and his family, modeled for the harmonica player in the foreground.
Egg tempera and oil on canvas - Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas
Frankie and Johnny, from The Social History of Missouri Murals
Based upon a popular folk song that Benton felt was representative of Missouri lore and mythology, the tale of Frankie and Johnny might have in fact concerned an incident. Benton freezes the drama and its actors in mid-action as the gun at center fires a bullet. Benton's rhythmic composition is evident in the undulating line made up of the six figures. All the figures and action are heightened and exaggerated as if in a Baroque manner. The eye travels the length of the six characters in a curvilinear line typical of Benton's dynamic compositions and figures. Benton long depicted racial and ethnic minorities within his works, but at times was accused of creating racially stereotypical facial features. The bright note of red at center brings attention to this pivotal figure that creates the tumultuous action within the canvas.
Egg tempera on canvas
Susanna and the Elders
"Lewd, immoral, obscene...the lowest expression of pure filth"-- wrote one critic in condemnation of Benton's interpretation of Susanna and the Elders. The work demonstrates the difficulties of painting religious imagery and Biblical scenes with a contemporary vocabulary. Based on the religious parable from the Book of Daniel, Benton recasts the tale within rural America. Here, Susanna is shown bathing, unaware of two elderly, lecherous men who spy on her. The pair will demand that Susanna has sex with them; least they spread salacious rumors about her. In this scene, the men confer on their plan to blackmail the young Hebrew maiden. Benton's frank and realistic treatment of the Susanna's body, rather than an idealized and sanitized version, breaks from the long tradition of classicizing the female body dating back to antiquities, and would have been radical and shocking to audiences at the time.
Egg tempera and oil on canvas - California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA
The Sowers: from The Year of Peril: A Series of War Paintings
In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Benton decided to paint large-scale propagandistic paintings to awaken Americans to the evils of fascism. In only six weeks, Benton produced eight works in a series he called The Year of Peril. His plan was to hang the works at the busy crossroads of Kansas City's Union Station wanting to jolt the travelers and commuters who passed by into awareness. His over-riding objective was to portray America's enemies as genocidal maniacs. Based on Millet's life-affirming and famous, The Sower, which shows a peasant sowing the fields, here, a craven giant with Asiatic facial features, tills a field of death as he casually tosses skulls onto a bloodied landscape.
Oil and tempera on canvas mounted on panel - State Historical Society of Missouri, Colombia, Missouri
The Sources of Country Music
In 1973, when Benton was eighty-four, he was convinced to come out of retirement to paint a mural for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, which turned out to be his final work. In this painting, Benton celebrates American traditions including vernacular music. Benton himself was an amateur musician. Among the vignettes depicted are a barn dance, women singing church music, a white woman with a dulcimer who sing Appalachian ballads, an African American man strums the banjo. Stylistically and thematically, Benton's last work directly connects back to his Regionalist works of the 1930s when he was likened as America's most beloved painter. However, despite the stylistic innovations made by some of his former students such as Pollock, and the many artistic movements that followed, Benton remained unchanged and thus, outside of the progressive art world. Benton's work is a conservative, populist vision of painting American life.
Acrylic on Canvas - The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Nashville, TN