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Shallow Creek: Thomas Hart Benton and American Waterways

March 18 - May 18, 2008


2008 marks the 75th anniversary of Thomas Hart Benton's famed Indiana Murals, which grace the IU-Bloomington campus. To celebrate this occasion the Indiana University Art Museum will present a series of special events and exhibitions, including Shallow Creek: Thomas Hart Benton and American Waterways, on view in the Special Exhibitions Gallery, March 18 through May 18, 2008. (right: Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889-1975), Shallow Creek, 1938, Oil and tempera on canvas mounted on board, 36 x 25 inches. Collection of James and Barbara Palmer Artã T. H. Benton and R. P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.)

"There is something about flowing water that makes for easy views. Down the river is an immense sense of freedom given to those who yield to it."
-Thomas Hart Benton, An Artist in America (1937)

Images of water figure prominently in the art of the Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975). His depictions of rivers, streams, gullies, and creeks form a subgenre of American landscape painting, inviting us to rethink the artistic meaning and historical legacy of even the narrowest of inlets. Among Benton's most significant representations of this subject matter is a body of work from 1938-42 depicting intimate coves and creeks. The painting Shallow Creek (1938) is a lynchpin of this series and the focal point of the exhibition. In addition to this richly nuanced work, the exhibition features more than thirty other works in a variety of medium to shed further light on Benton's fascination with the people and places found along the waterways of America -- from the industrial harbors of Virginia to the swamps of southeastern Georgia.

Raised on the edge of the Ozarks in southwestern Missouri, Benton maintained a lifelong love affair with rivers. He periodically fed his visual and psychic appetite for rivers through "float trips," where he filled sketchbooks with studies of people interacting with their vernacular waterscapes -- whether for work, play, or even religious reasons. He also turned for watery inspiration to the novels and short stories of his fellow Missourian Mark Twain. Not surprisingly, the free-spirited Huck Finn and related characters figure prominently in many of these works. Like Twain, Benton also recognized the "dark side" of the river and its link to the cycle of life and death. As such, he mined water's symbolic potential in combination with religious or mythological figures, such as Persephone, and even his own children. While such images at first appear simply as genre scenes, a closer reading reveals deeper psychological implications.

In his later years, Benton developed a growing environmental awareness-participating in campaigns to prevent the damming of the Buffalo and Missouri rivers by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- in order to save some of the waterways that he'd so long admired. Whether capturing the natural beauty of the waterways or the colorful characters associated with them, Benton's watery iconography recorded a uniquely American way of life that in many places was also in peril. (left: Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889-1975), "Different kinds of moonlight change the shape of the river,"Study for Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, ca. 1944, Gouache and watercolor on paper, 7 x 4 1/2 inches. The State Historical Society of Missouri, 1966.0100. Courtesy of the Limited Editions Club, New York Art © T. H. and R. P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York)

Shallow Creek: Thomas Hart Benton and American Waterways is organized by the Palmer Museum of Art at The Pennsylvania State University. Funding for the Bloomington venue has been provided by the Lucienne M. Glaubinger Endowed Fund for the Curator of Works on Paper and the IU Art Museum's Arc Fund.



Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:

More resources on the Internet for Thomas Hart Benton (1899-1975):

If you are interested in "American Scene" art of the 1930s and 40s you may enjoy the WPA Period Print Collection Directory from the University of Montana.

TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Indiana Murals of Thomas Hart Benton: Visions of the Past, Lessons for the Present and Treasures for the Future, The. Presents the story of the murals painted by Thomas Hart Benton (depicting the history of the state of Indiana from the early Native Americans until the 1930s) from their creation for the World's Fair of 1933 to a major restoration in the 1990s. Includes commentary by art historians and museum curators. c2001. 41 min. Video/C 9353. Available from Media Resources Center, Library, University of California, Berkeley
Thomas Hart Benton is a 60 minute1988 film from the Ken Burns' America series by PBS. "The turbulent career of Thomas Hart Benton, one of America's most controversial artists, began with experimentation in Expressionism, Cubism, and other European styles abroad. Later, while in the military, Benton was assigned to illustrate army equipment, discovering in the process a realistic style that finally satisfied him. Returning to civilian life, he became a Regionalist painter, portraying Americans as down-to-earth types who expressed their "American-ness" through their everyday actions and their appearance." Director Ken Burns combines samples of Benton's work and interviews with art critics, family, and friends as well as footage of Benton himself. Produced by Ken Burns and Julie Dumphey. (Quote from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) Thomas Hart Benton is available through the Sullivan Video Library at The Speed Art Museum which holds a sizable collection of art-related videos available to educators at no charge.
Thomas Hart Benton's Missouri  28 minute / 1992 / FFH - "America's foremost folk muralist, the late Thomas Hart Benton, was at the apex of his career when he painted the Social History of Missouri mural which ambitiously depicts that state's progress from pioneer days to the Depression era. Benton's own narration from recorded interviews is used and supplemented by historian Bob Priddy."

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