In the years following World War II, American regionalist art fell out of fashion, its popularity superseded by the promotion of modernist abstraction. After the deaths of Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry in 1942 and 1946, Thomas Hart Benton was the sole survivor of the movement’s three major artists. Benton retreated from the controversial social commentary characteristic of his murals from the previous decade and painted a number of landscapes representing agricultural activities, such as Corn and Winter Wheat. In the shocks of corn prominently displayed in the foreground, as well as the farmers planting winter wheat in the distance, Benton depicts a labor-intensive, traditional method of farming that was being rendered obsolete by mechanization. Corn and Winter Wheat, like other landscapes by Benton during this period, is a nostalgic look back in time to the Midwest’s agrarian, pre-industrial past.
Corn and Winter Wheat is probably based on sketches that Benton made while traveling in rural Missouri in 1945. Dwarfed by the rolling Missouri farmland, two farmers in the center foreground plant winter wheat with the aid of a horse-drawn wagon. A farmhouse with a red barn and windmill, standard ingredients of the American regionalist landscape, appear in the left background. Six shocks of corn occupy the foreground.
Since the late 1930s Benton had been painting landscapes such as Cradling Wheat (1938, St. Louis Art Museum, MO) that represent farming in the rural areas where he often traveled in search of suitable subjects. These works had been successful for Benton, and an early example, July Hay (1943), was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art the same year it was executed. Benton’s small-scale easel paintings were derived from motifs found in the monumental public murals that had helped to establish his reputation in the 1920s and 1930s. For example, farming scenes have a prominent role in his Social History of Missouri (1936) in the House Lounge of the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. After the war Benton avoided controversial social commentary in his paintings and even experimented with a mythological subject—Achelous and Hercules (1947, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC)—for a mural commissioned by a women’s clothing store in St. Louis.
In an earlier and very similar painting also titled Corn and Winter Wheat
Creekmore Fath, The Lithographs of Thomas Hart Benton (Austin, TX, 1990), no. 65, 150.
In his harvest scenes Benton has depicted a labor-intensive, traditional method of farming wheat and corn that was in the process of being rendered obsolete by mechanization.
Introduced to Kansas by Mennonite immigrants in the 19th century, winter wheat is planted from September to December. Crops sprout before freezing occurs, become dormant until the soil warms in the spring, and are ready for harvesting by early July. The widespread cultivation of winter wheat began in Kansas at the turn of the 20th century, largely through the efforts of the agriculturalist Bernard Warkentin and the botanist Mark Carleton, and quickly spread throughout the Great Plains. Regarding corn, late in the harvest season, after picking the ears by hand, farmers bundled the remaining corn stalks together and tied them into teepee-shaped shocks that they set upright in the field. This process facilitated drying so that the remnants of the corn plants could be used as fodder for farm animals. See Thomas D. Isern, “Wheat Explorer the World Over: Mark Carleton of Kansas,” Kansas History 23 (Spring–Summer, 2000): 12–25, and “Bernard Warkentin,” Kansas Historical Society, last modified January 2016, http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/bernard-warkentin/15595.
“Harvester Cuts Corn, Shells Cleans and Bins It,” Popular Mechanics, Nov. 1930, 762.
Benton did occasionally represent modern mechanized farming; see, for example, Rice Threshing (1945, private collection) and Wyoming Hay (1963–1964, Winston Churchill Memorial and Library, Fulton, MO).
See, respectively, Creekmore Fath, The Lithographs of Thomas Hart Benton (Austin, TX, 1990), nos. 27 and 28, 74–76. In the commentary to Island Hay, no. 68, 156, Benton drew attention to the traditional scythe cutting method still being used on Martha’s Vineyard.
J. Richard Gruber has noted that Benton’s carefully observed and researched agricultural subjects show that the artist “viewed these scenes as reflective of a larger order at work, a traditional American agrarian order that was based on the importance of man working in harmony with the world of nature. The abundance of the harvest in these works serves as evidence of the fruits of man’s labor when he respected those natural systems and worked in accordance with the laws of the natural world.”
J. Richard Gruber, Thomas Hart Benton and the American South (Athens, GA, 1998), 46.
In the years following World War II, American regionalism fell out of fashion, its popularity superseded by the growing attention paid to modernist abstraction in America. Grant Wood had died in 1942, John Steuart Curry in 1946, and the reputation of Thomas Hart Benton, the sole survivor of the movement’s three leading artists, was in decline. In May 1946 the well-known art historian Horst W. Janson wrote an article for the Magazine of Art in which he attacked regionalism, stating that the movement was “essentially anti-artistic in its aims and character” and “nourished by some of the fundamental ills of our society” before directing some personal aspersions at Benton.
H. W. Janson, “Benton and Wood, Champions of Regionalism,” Magazine of Art, May 1946, quoted in Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original (New York, 1989), 320.
“Are These Men the Best Painters in America Today?” Look, Feb. 3, 1948, 44–48, discussed in Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original (New York, 1989), 320.
Henry Adams to Robert Torchia, Mar. 28, 2012, NGA curatorial files.
August 17, 2018
lower left: Benton 48
Sadie Miller, McPherson, Kansas, by 1950. (Kodner Gallery, St. Louis); acquired jointly May 2000 by (Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe) and (John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco); sold January 2001 to (Owen Gallery, New York); purchased January 2001 by Helen L. Henderson [1939-2021], Washington, D.C.; gift (partial and promised) 2001 to NGA; gift completed 2021.
- Thomas Hart Benton, Owen Gallery, New York, 2000.
The painting is executed on a medium-weight plain-weave fabric that has been lined with a nap-bond, heat-set adhesive onto a nonoriginal, keyed wooden stretcher. The tacking margins are intact. The canvas was commercially prepared with an off-white priming.
The priming covers all of the tacking margins, indicating that the canvas was primed before painting. This usually indicates that the priming was commercially prepared rather than applied by the artist.
The infrared examination was conducted using a Santa Barbara Focalplane InSb camera fitted with a K astronomy filter.
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