Thomas Hart Benton, American, 1889–1975
Tempera with oil glaze on linen, on wood panel
24 × 30 in. (61 × 76.2 cm)
Gift of Frank J. Hevrdejs
Habits of Mind
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Activating prior knowledge
- Analyzing setting—understanding that we make assumptions about setting based on inferences we can make about time and place
- Critical analysis and understanding of historical perspective in artistic works
- Descriptive writing and parts of speech
Connecting to the Work of Art
Painted amid the social conflict and economic depression of the 1920s and 1930s, Thomas Hart Benton’s landscapes present idyllic images of the relationship between man and nature. Haystack depicts three farmers building a haystack. The composition is dominated by the central haystack and framed by the ramshackle house and barbed-wire fence. Overlapping hills, clustered trees, and contrasts of light and shadow add depth and drama to the landscape. Benton’s dynamic brushstrokes animate this peaceful scene.
Here, the artist portrays man working in harmony with nature and the land as a source of bounty and nourishment. The rhythmic swirls of paint create a lyrical rhythm between the farmers and the land that provides their sustenance. The ground appears to swell around the figures as if the farmers and the land are becoming one. The lack of harsh lines or points in the composition emphasizes the organic focus of the painting, while the classic use of three figures within a framed and balanced composition stabilizes the painting. This is not an arresting image; instead, the painting projects a sense of tranquility and endurance.
A palette of rich browns, greens, and golds—the colors of the harvest—unifies the scene. The artist painted the trees and shrubs in lush greens, the hay in vibrant ochres, and the bright blue sky dotted with idyllic white clouds. Benton suggests a world of plentiful abundance, which was a harsh contrast to the barren and desolate land during the Great Depression of the 1930s. At a time when farmers suffered from the devastating effects of drought, Benton’s peaceful scenes uplifted the quiet heroism of farming life.
Born in Missouri, Benton is best known for his historical murals and realistic portrayals of country life. Haystack was painted four years after Benton moved from New York back to Missouri. Here, he had intimate contact with rural America
—his favorite subject matter. Although the specific location of this painting is not known, the scene evokes the gentle hills and valleys of North Carolina. Benton—who made frequent sketching trips to rural locations—had visited this region in 1928. He was fascinated by the local people who resisted change to maintain their traditions.
Referred to as a Regionalist, Benton believed that the subjects of American artists should come from the nation's heartland—everyday life in American towns and farms. While he was well schooled in the lessons of Modernism, Benton abandoned his formal training to look inward. By relying on his native instincts, he sought to develop "authentic American art" that would celebrate and further the American spirit, unaffected by European influence. What resulted from this inward study was a celebration of the spirit and people of America.
- What do you notice about this painting? Look closely at the background, middle ground, and foreground.
- What words would you use to describe the landscape?
- Describe the relationship between the three figures and the landscape. How does the artist frame the central figures in the composition? How would this work be different if the figures were in the foreground or in the background?
- What types of colors are used throughout the work of art? What associations do you have with the golden yellows and deep reds?
- How do the dynamic brushstrokes and the rhythmic landscape energize the composition?
- What elements did the artist add to the composition to create a sense of endurance?
- While the landscape swells with motion, what elements in the composition are stable? Why do you think stability is important within the scene?
- Notice the lack of harsh lines and sharp points. How do the soft lines and shapes add to the harmonious tone of the work?
- How does this work present an idyllic image of the relationship between man and nature? What elements show the land as a source of bounty and nourishment?
- How does the artist project a sense of hopefulness in this painting?
- Do you think that the artist is celebrating farm life, or depicting a realistic viewpoint? Explain your reasoning.
- The artist painted this work during the Great Depression of the 1930s. How does this work compare to images from that time that you have seen before? Why do you think the artist would want to paint a farm scene like this one?
- How would this work be different if the artist painted a close-up view of the farmers? How is the incorporation of the landscape vital to the message of harmony?
- Explain how this work could be viewed as a comment on the quiet heroism of farming life, as well as a celebration of the spirit and people of America.
Connecting to the Classroom
- BEFORE viewing the painting, activate prior knowledge. For example, lead the discussion with, “This work of art shows a pastoral scene involving farm workers and hay. What do we know about this subject generally?”
- Focus on SETTING–BASED ON OUR PRIOR KNOWLEDGE, what is the “setting” of this work of art? What is the PLACE of this scene? What parts of this painting support your inference regarding the place? What is the TIME of year? What parts of this painting support your inference regarding the time of year? What is the TIME period historically? Why do you think so? What parts this painting support your inference regarding the historical time period?
- Continue with a discussion of the painting relative to the historical time frame and the author’s choice of setting, using relevant conversation starter questions and background.
- Students could keep a “Setting Log” from their independent reading for future critical analysis discussions relative to author choice of setting.
- Students could make a list of nouns and verbs relating to the subject of the painting, and then write a description of the painting using vivid adjectives and adverbs. Students could then color code the different parts of speech.
Subject Matter Connection
In reading and writing, attention to detail is important. By observing Haystack and its familiar subjects, students can put into practice the art of observation. These observation skills can be repeated and re-emphasized throughout the school year when students observe works of art, read, or prepare to write. Because the subjects of Haystack are familiar, students should be more comfortable about communicating their thoughts and verbalizing their ideas about this work, skills that carry over into both group and independent language arts practice activities and assessments. Although the subjects of Haystack are simple, the overall theme of the painting is complex; therefore, this work is ideal for working with students on their ability to analyze and synthesize relationships. This habit of mind is important to the language arts curriculum because analysis and synthesis are central to understanding more difficult concepts such as theme or cross-genre comparisons.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.