Thomas Hart Benton – Night Firing of Tobacco

3 Oct

“….Benton’s overwhelming love of America found its true outlet—in the streams, hills, and the mountains of the country, populated by people unsuspectingly living out their time, quietly enjoying themselves, living easily on the land, celebrating nothing more than their existence.”

Thomas Hart Benton, Night Firing of Tobacco, 1943

American painter Thomas Hart Benton is mostly remembered these days in connection to the more legendary and scandalous Jackson Pollock because he was his tutor, but Benton has many amazing works which deserve attention too. The painting “Night Firing of Tobacco” shows a lonesome figure of a farmer tending to his crop during the fire-curing process. The dusk setting gave Benton an opportunity to play with light and shadow; in the distant sky we can see the blue sky transition into yellow, and the gorgeous warm orange that is coming from the fire. The farmer’s dignity and hard-work without the help of the machinery bring to mind the countryside scenes by the French Realist painter Jean-Francois Millet; both paintings are praising the humility and simplicity of the countryside life. The different horizontal layers of the painting give a certain rhythm and playfullness to the painting and almost seem as if they were cut out from paper, made in a collage style. The robust style of painting and the exaggerated curvy lines of the landscape are present here, but even more prominent in his other works painted around the same time such as “The Hailstorm”. Benton was comissioned to paint this and some other paintings by the American Tobacco Company who wanted him to portray the different stages of the tobacco production; the planting, harvesting etc. Benton travelled to Georgia seeking inspiration which he ended up finding in the North Carolina.

The transient hour of the day; day slowly turning into night echoes the nostalgic sentiment that Benton has felt about the changing ways of life in America at the time. Just as the day is giving in to the darkness of the night the calm, the old ways were giving in to modernity; old country roads were being turned into highways, fast-paced way of life was threatening the calmess of the small towns and the ugliness of the industrial complexes was threatening to erase the slow-paced way of working. Benton travelled the countryside and wanted to capture the vitality and honesty of the people he had met, the simple, hardworking folk, and naturally he wanted his art to show this national pride and love for his country. The social value of art was important to him and in the toughest times such as the Great Depression and the World War II Benton was the most productive and in the paintings from that period he allowed his patriotism to shine in all its glory.

Jackson Pollock, Going West, 1934-35

Benton considered “A Social History of Missouri: Pioneer Days and Early Settlers” (1936) his best work but in general his countryside scenes from the World War II period are considered some of his best works: “In many ways, though, his more remarkable achievements are the landscapes of this period. In these, it would appear that Benton’s overwhelming love of America found its true outlet—in the streams, hills, and the mountains of the country, populated by people unsuspectingly living out their time, quietly enjoying themselves, living easily on the land, celebrating nothing more than their existence.” (Matthew Baigell, Thomas Hart Benton)

The figures in Benton’s paintings are always the everyday people; the same people living “out of their time” that Jack Kerouac had met on his travels in the book “On the Road”; people planting corn or picking oranges, completely unaware of the crazy things that were going on in the big cities, living by their own rhythm and enjoying it that way. The lonesome figure of a farmer in Benton’s painting reminds me of someone that Kerouac could have encountered in his travels. And speaking of travels to the West, Pollock painted a similar scene a decade earlier. This moody, robust, exaggerated painting style full of intensity, dark shadows and thick layers of paint was obviously inspired by Benton’s paintings and both paintings offer a nostalgic, rose-tinted view of the old American life.

Thomas Hart Benton, The Hallstorm, 1940

4 Responses to “Thomas Hart Benton – Night Firing of Tobacco”

  1. Upside-down Land 3rd Oct 2021 at 8:28 pm #

    I’ve never seen Night Firing of Tobacco before. Thanks for your descriptive text. I didn’t know Pollack had been tutored by Benton either. Some view all of abstract expressionism as a CIA invented excursion intended to demoralize the Soviets and their mundane realism. I suspect they may be correct. It is, in any event, The Painted Word.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 3rd Oct 2021 at 9:00 pm #

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I am having fun discovering Hart’s paintings as well. Everything is twisted and strange when you scratch the surface so I wouldn’t be surprised.

      Like

  2. Ben Montgomery 6th Oct 2021 at 6:23 am #

    Here in Kansas City he’s very popular. You see his work around town and lot.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: