American, 1889-1975

Study for "Over the Mountains", ca. 1922-1923

oil on artist board
signed lower right
12 3/4 x 16 1/4 inches

  • Provenance: The artist (ca. 1930); Private Collection, New York.
  • Notes: A letter from Robert Graham, James Graham and Sons, Inc., New York, New York, dated September 29, 1964, discussing the authenticity accompanies the lot. A photograph of the painting, with a note signed by the artist on the reverse reads "Sketch for "Over the Mountains", a section of a mural project under taken between 1919-1925. This sketch made in the winter of '22 / '23 if my memory is correct. In any case early Twenties. / Thomas H. Benton".

    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, Andrew Thompson and Michael Owen.

    "My original purpose was to present a peoples' history in contrast to the conventional histories which generally spotlighted great men, political and military events, and successions of ideas. I wanted to show that the peoples' behaviors, their action on the opening land, was the primary reality of American life."1 - Thomas Hart Benton

    While serving in the Navy during WWI, Thomas Hart Benton conceived the idea for his American Historical Epic. He began painting shortly after the war, aspiring to create over 50 panels depicting the history of America from the arrival of the Europeans to the time he was working. He envisioned the mural panels as all being life-sized and linked stylistically and thematically with bright colors.

    By the winter of 1926, he had tired of the historical subject but had completed 18 panels. He bequeathed ten to the Nelson Atkins Museum in 1975. Although he ultimately abandoned the project, the American Historical Epic was a major turning point for Benton. It was at this time that he turned away from formalism and abstraction and began defining his own style and ultimately shaping modern American Art and, specifically, American Regionalism.

    Throughout his career, Benton admired the works of Italian Renaissance artists, Giotto, Masaccio, Michelangelo, Tintoretto and El Greco. He emulated their technique using tempera and creating mural projects. He took their influence and combined it with American popular culture to create works that were didactic but also relatable and engaging. He felt compelled to change public art and use it as a means of changing humanity for the better.

    Benton had met Robert Henri as both were on the faculty of the Art Students League in the late 1920s. Henri had espoused the idea of creating art that was distinctly American to improve life and humanity. Henri did this through depicting everyday American Scenes and in his own style Benton imagined everyday scenes of the American past in the American Historical Epic.

    Benton worked on the panels through the 1920s and exhibited the various "chapters" at annual exhibitions in New York at the Architectural League. The present lot is a study for Over the Mountains from the second "chapter" titled Colonial Expansion. In this scene, Benton depicts the conquest of the mountainous interior region of the United States.

    The other panels from this "chapter" The Pathfinder, Jesuit Missionaries, Struggle for the Wilderness, and Lost Hunting Ground depict many scenes of racial and economic conflict towards the goal of westward expansion. His own pessimism about the unceasing historical pattern of American racial conflict may have led Benton to abandon the mural project. In later murals, he focused on the collectivity of the American spirit rather than the conflicts but his initial exhibitions from this series established his reputation as a muralist. By 1929 his attention shifted to work on the America Today mural for the New School for Social Research and other projects.

    The American Historical Epic was Benton's first foray into Regionalism and firmly established him as a muralist. Thus, setting the tone for the remainder of his highly successful and prolific career as one of America's most iconic and recognizable artists.

    1 Thomas Hart Benton, "American Regionalism: A Personal History of the Movement," in An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1969), p. 149.

    Tags: Regionalist, Regionalism, oil painting, study, mural, American Historical Epic, Modernist, Modernism, Modern / Contemporary
  • Condition: overall very good condition; some minor areas where paper appears slightly wavy; a few very minor dots of restoration apparent under UV; UV and additional photos available upon request

    We are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Shannon’s is merely a subjective qualified opinion. Frames on all paintings are sold "As Is". Frames may need some conservation. NOTWITHSTANDING THIS REPORT OR ANY DISCUSSIONS CONCERNING CONDITION OF A LOT, ALL LOTS ARE OFFERED AND SOLD “AS IS” IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CONDITIONS OF SALE. 

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