Monday, April 16, 2012

Thomas Hart Benton and American Waterways

Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889-1975), Shallow Creek, 1938, Oil and tempera on canvas mounted on board, 36 x 25 inches. Collection of James and Barbara Palmer Artã T. H. Benton and R. P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

"There is something about flowing water that makes for easy views. Down the river is an immense sense of freedom given to those who yield to it."

-Thomas Hart Benton, An Artist in America (1937)

Images of water figure prominently in the art of the Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975). His depictions of rivers, streams, gullies, and creeks form a subgenre of American landscape painting, inviting us to rethink the artistic meaning and historical legacy of even the narrowest of inlets. Among Benton's most significant representations of this subject matter is a body of work from 1938-42 depicting intimate coves and creeks. The painting Shallow Creek (1938) is a lynchpin of this series.

Raised on the edge of the Ozarks in southwestern Missouri, Benton maintained a lifelong love affair with rivers. He periodically fed his visual and psychic appetite for rivers through "float trips," where he filled sketchbooks with studies of people interacting with their vernacular waterscapes -- whether for work, play, or even religious reasons. He also turned for watery inspiration to the novels and short stories of his fellow Missourian Mark Twain. Not surprisingly, the free-spirited Huck Finn and related characters figure prominently in many of these works. Like Twain, Benton also recognized the "dark side" of the river and its link to the cycle of life and death. As such, he mined water's symbolic potential in combination with religious or mythological figures, such as Persephone, and even his own children. While such images at first appear simply as genre scenes, a closer reading reveals deeper psychological implications.

In his later years, Benton developed a growing environmental awareness-participating in campaigns to prevent the damming of the Buffalo and Missouri rivers by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- in order to save some of the waterways that he'd so long admired. Whether capturing the natural beauty of the waterways or the colorful characters associated with them, Benton's watery iconography recorded a uniquely American way of life that in many places was also in peril.

Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889-1975), "Different kinds of moonlight change the shape of the river,"Study for Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, ca. 1944, Gouache and watercolor on paper, 7 x 4 1/2 inches. The State Historical Society of Missouri, 1966.0100. Courtesy of the Limited Editions Club, New York Art © T. H. and R. P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York