Friday, March 18, 2011


Thomas Hart Benton — Persephone — 1939

Thomas Hart Benton is a grand old fixture of the history of 20th century art. Yet Robert Hughes, venerable art critic for Time magazine, cited Benton as "a dreadful artist most of the time . . . flat-out, lapel-grabbing vulgar, incapable of touching a pictorial sensation without pumping and tarting it up to the point where the eye wants to cry uncle." Don't hold back Mr. Hughes. Benton was painting 'fine art' for museums, not 'cover art' for pulps.

One of Benton's more controversial paintings was that of Persephone, a modern allegory of Pluto, in the guise of a Missouri farmer, gazing at the sleeping goddess.

Benton's painting process was not simple, but fell into line with the practice of many painters, making thorough use of preliminary procedures:

Above, before painting, Benton produced many graphite sketches of every element that he envisioned in the image.

Above, he took various sketches and combined them into numerous compositional studies, gridding them for transfer to painting surfaces.

During the whole process, (above and below) inspired by the practice of Tintoretto, the 16th century painter, Benton worked out the spatial relationships of the figures and light and shadow by creating clay-sculpture models, that he used for further preliminary studies and the final painting.

Above, he also created black and white oil sketches to work out the rendering of tonal values.

And, above, a detail of a master drawing that he gridded for transfer to a linen canvas adhered to a panel, a whopping size of 4.5 X 6 feet, combining egg tempera and oil for the final painting, shown at the top of this post.


Larry MacDougall said...

Great post Thom.

It would be nice to be able to spend that much time on a piece and really get it right. But then again, you don't want to spend all your energy at the sound-check and have nothing left for the concert.

Thomas Haller Buchanan said...

Larry, I think you put your finger on the decades old question of what's the big deal difference between fine art and illustration?.

Steve Scott said...

Thank you Thom for a wonderful posting! Benton's "Persephone" is one of my favorite works of art, philistine that I am...

Dr. Monkey Hussein Monkerstein said...

Brilliant painting. I always loved Thomas Hart Benton

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting post, I really like the idea of also sculpting out the image to get an idea of lights/darks. I'll keep that method in mind!

Annie said...

Hi Thom,
Thank you for a thorough post about Benton's working process for this painting. I can't say I like this painting, but I appreciate the work he put into it; and also the restrained way the farmer gazes at Persephone. I don't get much personality from her.

Thomas Haller Buchanan said...

Hi Annie,

I love the way you find the positives in all that you see. Thanks for all your comments and keep 'em comin'.

Jason B. said...

Great information, loved reading it!
I have a question however. Did he happen to make lithographs of Persephone in 1939 shortly after finishing the painting?

Anonymous said...

When I first saw this I was very young and it made my heart leap. I was about 8-years-old and it's remained my favorite painting. In a way I never wanted to know too much about, thinking that would detract from the raw beauty of it. But spoiler alter...I let myself go recently and read that the old man depicted how Benton felt while observing his young and beautiful models. This particular model was close to starving, the only reason she posed. In that sense it's like other Benton works, about the nature of Work itself. Ya think?