DescriptionTHOMAS HART BENTON (American, 1889-1975)
Still Life with Teapot and Fruit, circa 1912-14
Oil on board
9-3/8 x 15-1/2 inches (23.8 x 39.4 cm)
Signed and inscribed on original frame liner: Jessie's picture / from Daddy
Inscribed on original frame liner verso: Fort Hill / Casino Vinilla
Inscribed on label verso: To Eve / So we will be what we should be- / I really don't know what to say- / this is just so families go on / xx Jessie Benton
PROPERTY FROM THE KING COLLECTION, TEXAS
Jessie Benton, the artist's daughter, gift from the above;
Eve Chayes Lyman, gift from the above;
Childs Gallery, Boston, Massachusetts;
Acquired by the present owner from the above, November 2006.
El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, Texas, "Modern American Painting 1907-1936: The Maria and Barry King Collection," September 8, 2013-January 8, 2014, no. 31.
"Discovering the American Modern 1907-1936: The King Collection," American Art Review, December 2013, pp. 80-87, 127, illustrated;
P.S. Cable, Modern American Painting 1907-1936: The Maria and Barry King Collection, exhibition catalogue, El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, Texas, 2013, pp. 92-95, no. 31, illustrated.
Still life with Teapot and Fruit is a rare surviving early Modernist work by Thomas Hart Benton: most of the artist's Parisian and early New York efforts were destroyed in a fire at the family home in Neosho, Missouri in 1917. Underscoring the painting's importance is the fact that the artist kept it in his personal collection, and ultimately presented it to his daughter, Jessie, as a gift. His handwritten dedication appears on the back of the painting's original frame. Jessie, in turn, gifted this rare example of her father's work to a member of her own extended family.
Although he is best-known as one of the leading members of the 1930s American Regionalist movement, who championed subjects drawn from American life, and advocated powerful pictorial narrative as well as a highly legible realist style designed to communicate to everyone not just the artistic elite, Thomas Hart Benton spent two decades of his early artistic career as a Modernist, first in Paris (1908-1912), and then in New York (1913-1920). A fiercely intelligent, well-read son of a populist U.S. Congressman from Missouri, Benton was a complex artist and personality whose relentless determination to find his own artistic voice led him to probe not only the secrets of the Old Masters but grapple with avant-garde approaches to painting from Post-Impressionism, to Fauvism, Cubism, and an American offshoot of the latter focused on color theory-Synchromism.
Benton specialist, Dr. Henry Adams, co-author of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné on the artist, believes that Still Life with Teapot and Fruit is consistent with the work Benton produced in New York between 1912 and 1914, shortly following his return from Paris. Adams notes: "The ultimate source of Benton's still lifes of this sort is the work of Cézanne. During his last months in Paris, Benton and his friend Stanton Macdonald-Wright [co-founder of Synchromism with Morgan Russell] occupied themselves with making still-life paintings resembling those of Cézanne. In their enthusiasm for Cézanne's work they even arranged to visit a major Russian collector of Cézanne's work, who had an apartment near the Parc Monceau. After he settled in New York, Benton continued producing such Cézannesque exercises, along with the painter Samuel Halpert, whom he had known slightly in Paris."
"The essence of Benton's fascination with Cézanne," Adams continues, "lay in the notion that a painting should not simply be a mechanical transcription of the visual world, but a formal construction, in which light and shade, color, surface design, and relationships in deep space were all interwoven to create a unified visual fabric. Creating strong design at all of these different levels produces a slight sense of contradiction, since design in depth wars with design on the surface."
In Still life with Teapot and Fruit, for example, Benton pushed the strongly sculptural teapot, arguably the protagonist in this vividly colored design, toward the back of the table. It nestles behind a bright red apple and yellow banana, and a handful of dark purple plums that settle into the shadows against the body of the bright white vessel. Since the teapot is white and thus more highly keyed in tonality than the cluster of fruit in front of it, it pushes forward rather aggressively in the composition. This creates a certain spatial tension Benton was interested in at this time, accentuating it even further by its situation near the back edge of a tabletop that is tipped forward sharply. In this painting Benton also played with unresolved edges of forms that don't entirely close as discrete, resolved shapes-something he adapted from the work of Cézanne as well. Notably, the fore-edge of the banana seems to dissolve into the red tabletop, then perhaps pass under it and re-emerge as the amorphous white form on the right, which seems to suggest a cloth, perhaps a white napkin, with its soft contours. Where one form begins and ends is intentionally vague a la Cézanne. The primary means of separating the forms is the change in color without sharp outline, which looks forward to Benton's Synchromist paintings from just a couple years later (circa 1916). These, painted following a reconnection with Stanton Macdonald-Wright in 1914, and exhibited in the 1916 Forum exhibition at the Carroll Galleries, occasionally became entirely non-representational. As Adams notes: "Here (and in his later work as well) Benton was fascinated by the fact that we read visual form not in a single way, but flip back and forth between looking at patterns on the surface and design in three-dimensional space. Benton's goal was to coordinate these inherently different aspects of design, to get them to function together in some sort of harmony."
Of course what's fascinating, looking back, is how Benton's still-life exercises of this sort anticipate his later landscapes. We can almost imagine here that we are not looking at a still life but rather a landscape, a field-like space strewn with objects, with a mountain rising on the right, and a sea-like expanse far in the distance.
One of the most beautiful details in the present still life, and one that amply demonstrates Benton's understanding of sophisticated color theory, is in the bright blue reflected highlights at the base of the red apple, and on the reddish tablecloth nearby. This dazzling passage shows that Benton knew that this particular blue hue was the complement to the red. He doubtless exaggerated his intellectual understanding of an observed color phenomenon to create a spot of riveting chromatic "eye candy" in his painting. It is realism keyed up a notch, which could easily describe work from Benton's maturity as well.
This painting, like many from the same period, was once two-sided. (A still life of a Book and Flowers was once on the reverse of the present board, and was subsequently separated from it.) During the period immediately following his return from Paris, Benton was often too poor to afford new canvas, and would routinely use both sides of his supports to keep on working.
This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work being prepared by Andrew Thompson and Dr. Henry Adams.
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