Description

    THOMAS HART BENTON (American, 1889-1975)
    Preliminary Study for "Romance", circa 1931
    Gouache, tempera, and graphite on gessoed board
    12 x 11 inches (30.5 x 27.9 cm)

    PROVENANCE:
    The artist's daughter, Jessie Benton;
    Private collection, Chicago, acquired from the above.

    This work is a preliminary study for one of the most tender paintings of Thomas Hart Benton's career--Romance of 1931-32, in the Michener Collection, University Art Museum, University of Texas at Austin. The present owner acquired it directly from Thomas Hart Benton's daughter, Jessie, approximately 25 years ago.

    To view the finished painting Romance in the Michener collection of UT Austin, and read about the donor, please click this link:
    http://www.utexas.edu/features/archive/2002/michener2.html

    Of the three known preliminary tempera studies for Romance, which feature an African-American couple strolling in the moonlight, the present panel is, in the opinion of Benton expert Dr. Henry Adams, most likely the earliest of the three. Several factors argue for its status as Benton's initial conception for Romance, a highly finished work in egg tempera with oil glazes on panel, which quickly became one of the artist's most celebrated easel paintings from the 1930s. In 1938, Romance was sent to Paris as part of an exhibition of American painting organized by the Museum of Modern Art.

    Unlike the other two known preliminary studies for Romance documented in the Benton files of Owen Galleries, New York, which is preparing the Thomas Hart Benton catalogue raisonné, the present sketch is proportionally much squarer. The other two sketches are both taller and thinner, and thus are proportionally closer to the finished painting, which is longer and narrower, accentuating the monumentality of the couple. At some point early in his preparatory process, Benton clearly felt that the taller and narrower format helped accentuate the attenuated figures which were the compositional and emotional heart of his design.

    Additionally, this study is considerably brushier and more rapidly painted than the other two known studies, factors which Dr. Adams regards as excellent indicators of the artist's initial idea. Benton was a fascinating artist in the way he developed a personal protocol for developing a visual idea from its initial inspiration, through compositional sketches in pencil, then black and white tonal studies in paint, then color studies, then sometimes detailed drawings of key parts of the design such as faces and still life motifs, until he undertook the final work of art itself on a large scale support. Since no pencil drawings for this work survive, and this panel is absolutely chock full of pencil lines, it seems that it probably doubled as Benton's initial drawing and initial painted tonal sketch in which he worked out the general relationships between the figures and landscape motifs. Indeed, upon close inspection, the rapidity by which Benton drew boldly on top of the paint--even scratching through the paint film itself to correct the poses, and refine the outlines--is fully evident. It is a marvelous example of Benton's willingness to sacrifice surface effects to 'get it right.' There's a toughness to his approach, which matches the clarity of his vision.

    In addition to being a drawing plus a tonal study en grisaille, this fascinating panel also serves, in effect, as the first color study for the composition of Romance. Once the tonal relationships were worked out, Benton added color to this study, primarily various shades of blue in the sky, and the earthy browns describing most of the other features. One of the most curious and interesting passages is the intense blue-green patch of color between the branches of the tree which reads either as leaves or possibly just an enriched hue to experiment with the depth of the sky color. In some ways, this study is a more naturalistic portrayal of moonlight than the finished work: moonlight has a way of leeching color out of a scene. A comparison of this painted sketch with the final work in Austin shows Benton introducing a much broader range of color into the final design--in the bright red dress of the woman, delicate pink in her hat, and the golden glow of light on the ground. In reality, those colors would be much less legible in the moonlight.

    According to Henry Adams: "Benton understood that romance is awkward, even a bit dorky. And it's also tender and magical. He wanted to capture that tension. Amazingly, for the 1930s, he chose to picture the concept of romance with an African-American couple. Some people have accused Benton of being a racist, but I think he was actually just the opposite. He was asking white people to empathize with African-Americans, in fact, to identify with them. While they don't fit white movie star stereotypes of what it is to be handsome, in some uncanny way these two people couldn't be more beautiful. They're perfectly in harmony with the dark silhouettes of the moss-covered trees and the romantic quality of the moonlit night. They're the embodiment of romance. Curiously, when I worked on a film on Benton with Ken Burns this was a painting that he kept mentioning and coming back to. For some reason he clearly identified with it. I think it was probably his favorite Benton painting."

    We are grateful to Henry Adams for his scholarly generosity. We thank him for examining this painting through high resolution photographs, and endorsing a full attribution to Thomas Hart Benton on the basis of them.


    Estimate: $25,000 - $35,000.

    Condition Report*:

    Framed Dimensions 19 X 18 Inches

    *Heritage Auctions strives to provide as much information as possible but encourages in-person inspection by bidders. Statements regarding the condition of objects are only for general guidance and should not be relied upon as complete statements of fact, and do not constitute a representation, warranty or assumption of liability by Heritage. Please note that we do not de-frame lots estimated at $1,000 or less and may not be able to provide additional details for lots valued under $500. All lots are sold "AS IS" under the Terms & Conditions of Auction.

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    Auction Dates
    November, 2011
    8th Tuesday
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