THOMAS HART BENTON (1889–1975)
Going to Church, about 1930s–40s
Watercolor, ink wash, and graphite, en grisaille, 10 1/2 x 14 1/2 in.
EX COLL: the artist; to [Associated American Artists, New York]; Mr. and Mrs. Elon Marquand, Massachusetts; sale, William Doyle Galleries, New York, December 5, 2000, no. 84; to private collection, until the present
ON DEPOSIT: Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1976, from Mr. and Mrs. Elon Marquand, Yarmouthport, Massachusetts (acc. no. EL 6.1976)
An expert draftsman who originally intended to become an illustrator and newspaper cartoonist, Benton loved to draw, once informing a reporter: “I draw in my head all the time” (as quoted in Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton: Drawing from Life, exhib. cat. [Seattle: Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, 1990], p. 17). While some of his drawings were used as studies for his oils and mural decorations, others were conceived as independent works of art. Suffice to say, they play an important role in Benton’s artistic legacy; according to Henry Adams, about sixteen hundred drawings are held in the Benton Trusts and an equal number can be found in public and private collections. (Adams, p. 17.)
Benton’s drawings include images inspired by subjects he encountered in locales such as Martha’s Vineyard, New York City, and Hollywood. Inspired by his travels through the Midwest and the South, he also depicted the people and scenery of rural America. Such is the case with Going to Church, a spirited rendering that features two farmers––dressed not in their Sunday best but in ordinary work clothes––making their way towards a house of worship perched on the cusp of a sloping hillside. The lead figure rides an old mule––one of Benton’s “funny-looking, long-suffering trademarks”––while his companion follows on foot close behind (Karal Ann Marling, Tom Benton and His Drawings: A Biographical Essay and a Collection of His Sketches, Studies, and Mural Cartoons [Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1985], p. 41). The vista includes a group of tombstones in the background, and tucked into the far right, a pair of wooden privies––a reminder that during Benton’s day, country churches typically lacked indoor plumbing.
In describing his methodology for producing drawings during his travels, Benton stated: “I did them first in pencil. But I carried a knapsack on my back with the things in it and they began to rub. So every night I’d put pen-and-ink over them. And then a wash, a light wash to keep the pencil lines; then they didn’t rub. So I developed that technique through the necessities of the case. It became a regular formula” (as quoted in Adams, p. 106). Benton employs the same media in the present example, alternating between firm, emphatic contour lines, as in his rendering of the architecture, and loose, sketchy strokes, especially in his handling of the landscape. His skillful application of broad washes provides tonal variation throughout the composition, which is dominated by neutral greys with the exception of a few touches of yellow and blue that appear along the right edge of the sheet. Benton’s improvisatory handling imbues the image with verve and spontaneity, while his choice of subject––the denizens of America’s heartland––underscores his penchant for portraying ordinary people engaged in the mundane aspects of everyday life.