Catalog Essay | September 17, 2020 | Lot 103
The following passages are adapted from a letter regarding this work from Benton scholar, Henry Adams of Case Western University. A full copy of the letter is available by request.
After examining it [“Threshing Rice”] I’m confident both that the watercolor is authentic and that I can date it with reasonable confidence to circa 1926.
Benton made visits to Louisiana both early in his career, during his sketching trips of 1926 and 1928, and in 1941. The sketches of 1926 resulted in one of his early masterworks, the tempera painting Louisiana Rice Fields of circa 1928 in the Brooklyn Museum. He also included vignettes of rice threshing in the upper left corner of his panel of The South in his famous mural of 1930, American Today— perhaps the breakthrough painting of his career- now owned by AXA Equitable Life Insurance in New York.
When I first saw your watercolor I was unsure how it should be dated, but it definitely belongs to the earlier period. There are basically three reasons for assigning it an early date.
It carries a watermark reading “1925 UNBLEACHED ARNOLD”. While of course it’s not impossible that the watercolor was made years after the paper was purchased, most likely it was made soon afterwards. Arnold paper was a high-quality watercolor paper made by Arnold & Foster LTd at the Eynsford Paper Mills in Kent, and it was used by other notable American artists, including Charles Demuth. They were in business from the 1890s into the 1930s.
The watercolor directly relates to a drawing of 1926 by Benton in the Benton Trust, executed in ink and pencil, 4 x 6 inches. This is inscribed $50 on the verso and is inscribed on the recto with a signature and date: Benton ‘26. (see shannons.com for an illustration of this work)
Benton made his first major sketching trip in 1926, financing it with some money he had just received from decorating a sportsman’s den. He spent most of the trip making a walking tour through Northwest Arkansas and Southwest Missouri, but presumably he made this drawing on the train route west, presumably in Louisiana. This drawing is clearly a sketch made from life and the style is entirely consistent with Benton’s work of 1926.
The technique and style of the work you sent me, with its combination of watercolor and lines in pen-and-ink, and its vigorous, free, at times almost cartoon-like execution, seems to be distinctive to a particular period extending from 1926 into the early 1930s.
My guess is that the watercolor you sent to me was made around 1926, shortly after Benton returned to New York, but it also could have been made a few years afterwards. Given its distinctive pen and watercolor style, I don’t think it was made too much after 1930.
From March 3 to 25, 1930, Benton exhibited a large group of drawings and paintings- mostly works associated with his sketching trips of 1926 and 1928—at the Delphic Studios in New York, in an exhibition titled Recent paintings by Thomas H. Benton. This was the exhibition that first established Benton as the leading artist of the American Scene and it seems to me likely that this work was included in that important show.
I had never seen this work before and to my knowledge it has never been published. Thus, it’s a treat to come upon a work such as this, which illuminates how he handled watercolor at a key moment in his development. Benton’s sketching trips of 1926 and 1928 marked the major turning point in his career, when he shifted from a little-known modernist to becoming the major American painter of the American scene. It’s in works such as this that Benton first evolved the style and subject matter for which he is best-remembered today.
What’s marvelous about this watercolor is something that might somewhat put one off at first—it’s directness of attack. There’s a bold and at times almost cartoon-like energy to the piece. Nothing is indecisive. At the same time Benton has a complete understanding of everything he represents, of what it is and where it fits in space. He has a full grasp of the mechanics of the rice threshing process and of the machinery that carries it out.