American, 1889-1975

Study for Sugar Cane, 1943

oil on board
signed lower right "Benton," numbered and titled on the reverse "B#22-S."
8 3/4 x 12 inches

  • Provenance: Acquired directly from the artist by Samuel Sosland, Kansas City, Missouri; Estate of Samuel Sosland; Private Collection, Connecticut.
  • Literature: Matthew Baigell, "Thomas Hart Benton," (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1975), frontispiece (the final larger painting illustrated in color).
  • Notes: This painting is a study for "Sugar Cane," 1943, oil and tempera on canvas, 31 x 48 inches, in the Thomas Hart Benton Trust.

    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.
    Thomas Hart Benton was born in Missouri in 1889. His father was a lawyer and United States representative from 1896-1994. As a result, during his adolescence Benton spent time in both Washington D.C. and Missouri. At 17, he dropped out of high school and started working as a cartoonist. While his mother supported his artistic ambition, his father enrolled him at a military Academy before allowing him to enroll at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1907. From this point forward, his artistic career sprung.

    Benton travelled to Paris the following year to study at the famed Academie Julian. When he returned to the states in 1911, he lived in New York. During World War I, Benton served at the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia as an illustrator. During this early phase of his artistic career, Benton's paintings were modernist and often abstract. In 1924, he returned to Missouri and found inspiration in his rural roots. He broke with modernism, to instead focus on American rural subjects, steel mills, logging camps, coal mines and cotton fields.

    In his paintings and later murals, he championed working class Americans often depicting them as heroes. Together with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, Benton became regarded as one of the leading figures of American Regionalism. He taught at the Art Students League of New York, counting Jackson Pollock among his notable students.

    In 1935 Benton left New York and moved permanently to Kansas City, Missouri. Around 1943, his New York gallery, Associated American Artists, arranged for Benton to go to Louisiana for a series of commissions. He traveled to Pittsburgh and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans to sketch the LST troop ships being built and the newly built ships as part of the war effort. He also worked on a commission for Standard Oil in Baton Rouge sketching the oil refineries that would eventually serve as studies for Fluid Catalytic Converters at M.I.T. Museum of Art.1

    Taking advantage of his time in Louisiana, Benton sketched the agricultural work in the area, namely work in the rice fields and the cutting of sugar cane. In his essay, Benton scholar, Henry Abrams, notes, "I suspect he was interested in the contrast between this sort of rugged agricultural labor, using simple tools, and the more modern, thoroughly mechanized work of the oil refineries he had just been documenting…His drawing of the cutting of sugar cane resulted in this painting [ Sugar Cane, collection Thomas Hart Benton Trust], which must have been painted in Kansas City immediately after he returned from his trip, and is dated 1943." The present lot is a study for this larger finished work in the collection of the Thomas Hart Benton Trust.2

    The larger work Sugar Cane was exhibited as early as 1958 in the Thomas Hart Benton exhibition held at the University of Kansas Museum of Art. It was also reproduced as the frontispiece in Matthew Baigell's monograph on the artist in 1974, a volume done in collaboration with Benton who selected the illustrations himself. Adams included Sugar Cane in his exhibition in 1985 at the Fine Arts Gallery of the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City.

    Of the present lot, Adams notes, "There is a small study for the painting, almost identical in design, oil on board, 8 ½ x 12 inches, which was acquired from the artist by Samuel Sosland of Kansas City and is now in a private collection in New Hampshire. It should be obvious that this is one of Benton's largest and most impressive works and that he valued it highly, as is indicated by the full-page illustration in Baigell's monograph."3

    Adams' comments on Sugar Cane indicate the importance of this subject in Benton's career. His trip to Louisiana undoubtedly had a profound influence on his work. This oil sketch reads much larger than its size, and is closely related to final composition. It is indicative of Benton's process and done in his characteristic style.
    1 Henry Adams, "Sugar Cane," published by Kiechel Fine Art, Lincoln, Nebraska, https://thomashartbenton.wordpress.com/about-kiechel-fine-art/ (date accessed September 1, 2021).
    2 Ibid.
    3 Ibid.
    Framed dimensions: 14 3/4 x 18 x 1 1/2 inches

    Tags: Regionalist / Regionalism, oil painting, listed artist, Southern, Louisiana, 20th century
  • Condition: excellent condition, no restoration apparent, there is a small area of possible scuffing to the surface of the composition apparent in the horse's rear leg. Additional images available upon request.

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