DescriptionTHOMAS HART BENTON (American, 1889-1975)
Slave Master with Slaves (Study for The American Historical Epic), circa 1924-27
Crayon with pencil and ink on paper
15-1/2 x 17-1/2 inches (39.4 x 44.5 cm) (sheet)
Signed lower right: Benton
Robert E. Neuse, New York, acquired from the artist;
The Neuse family, New York, by descent;
Acquired by the present owner from the above.
We are grateful to Dr. Henry Adams, Professor of American Art at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, for authenticating this drawing as an autograph work by Benton, and for generously providing important provenance information essential to the cataloguing of this lot.
This large, highly-finished sheet is a major rediscovery in Thomas Hart Benton's drawing oeuvre and relates directly to Slavery, one of the toughest thematic panels in his very first mural--The American Historical Epic (circa 1924-29). The overseer whipping slaves with a church spire directly behind him in the far right background is the kind of juxtaposition Benton was bold enough to install in so many of his murals, motifs that are loaded with virulent social criticism for which he was often savagely criticized. Benton came from a long line of distinguished politicians who grappled with tough social issues, and in his own way, within in realm of art, the artist carried on his family's legacy for substantive debate. Interestingly, the artist's namesake, U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858), fought hard against the extension of slavery into U.S. territories where it had not previously existed.
Notably, this drawing reduces the figures to cubic forms showing the play of light and dark on them, a testament to the likely purpose of this sheet as either a final study for the mural panel or perhaps for a unexecuted lithograph based on it. Benton strove to achieve visual consistency in his complex murals as well as his lithographs by making sure that the light-dark contrasts were optically convincing. The use of lithographic crayon with touches of ink is interesting here because it was around the early 1920s that Benton first began making lithographic prints of his compositions. This led to an arrangement with Associated American Artists Gallery in New York which sold limited editions of them (250) by subscription.
The first owner of this impressive sheet was New Yorker Robert E. Neuse. As Henry Adams has noted, "Robert E. Neuse was dealer in rare books who connected with Thomas Hart Benton sometime shortly before the First World War. Neuse became Benton's landlord in New York in the 1920s and early 1930s, and also rented an apartment to Jackson Pollock and his brothers. About 1922 Benton designed a bookplate for him, which sometimes surfaces in books sold on eBay, and he often seems to have paid his rent in works of art, which may have been the case with the present work. Neuse eventually moved to western Massachusetts and correspondence survives in which he attempted to lure Benton to settle nearby. By this time, however, Benton had purchased land on Martha's Vineyard, and settled there instead. Neuse's wife Josephine wrote a book on gardening, The Country Garden, which is still in print."
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