Haystack, 1938
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

  • SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
VIDEOS

Examining Art Through a Historical Lens

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.

Curriculum Objectives

  •      Analyze a work of art
  •  Create original works of art
  •  Evaluate the purpose of a work of art
  •  Study the historical or cultural context of a work of art
  •  Create original writing based on an arts experience
     

GRADE LEVEL

9

10

11

12

SUBJECT AREA

Social Studies

HABITS OF MIND

Synthesize

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.

Observations

  • 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?

Interpretations

  • 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

Born in Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton is best known for his historical murals and realistic scenes of country life. He focused a large portion of his career as a painter on capturing the American experience. His works, such as Haystack, are often called American Scene paintings, because they depict the rural landscape, its stories, and people.

Benton´s paintings are often characterized by their idyllic vision of country life and the quiet heroism of rural Americans. Haystack was painted in 1938, four years after the artist returned to Missouri after working in New York.

Do you think this is a prosperous farm? Why or why not?

Assessment

1.  Study Thomas Hart Benton´s painting, Haystack.

Have each student answer the following questions:

  • What do you think the people and horse are doing in this scene?
  • Would you describe the figures as realistic or not?  Why?
  • Is there a message in this painting?  If so, what do you think it is?
  • Why do you think Benton painted this work?

To find out more about this work of art, view <b>Explore the Art</b> in the <b>Learn about the Art</b> section with your students.

2.  Research the time period.

Benton painted this work in 1938, during the Great Depression.  As a homework assignment, have students work in pairs to research the culture and economics of the 1930s.

  • List the major characteristics of the time period.
  • What do you think were the concerns and interests of Americans when Benton created this painting?


 


3.  Listen to the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In 1932 Roosevelt was elected thirty-second President of the United States in the midst of the Great Depression.  He proposed a "New Deal" in which the government played a more active role in stimulating the economy.  Read to students the excerpt from his inaugural address on March 5, 1933 (found in the Handouts section).


4.  Revisit Benton´s Haystack.

  • How do you think the painting relates to Roosevelt´s speech?
  • Which lines of the speech do you think specifically relate to the painting?  Explain your answer.
  • How are the actions of the people and horse similar to what´s right with America according to Roosevelt?
  • The artist uses a road in his painting to divide the work.  How can the road be symbolic?  Thinking back to Roosevelt´s speech, how does the road symbolize his measures of the New Deal?
  • Now reconsider the message Benton may have been conveying through this painting.  How has your opinion changed?



5.  Analyze a current event.

Each student should choose a current event (local, state, national, or world) and use it as the basis for the creation of a work of art.  Keeping Benton in mind and the circumstances from which his painting Haystack was created, students may use paper and pencils to convey an event that they feel is important.

  • Was choosing your current event easy or difficult?  Why?
  • What process and/or criteria did you use?
  • Does your work of art send the viewer a message about the event?  What is that message?
  • How are artists influenced by the time period in which a work of art is created?


Conclusion

Ask students to share their works of art with the class and to reflect on their initial thoughts about Haystack. How have their original feelings about Benton, the painting, and the 1930s changed since they revisited the work? In what ways do they feel as if they understand the artist´s intention better?

Extensions to the lesson

Language Arts: 1930s Literature

As an accompaniment to Thomas Hart Benton´s Haystack, have students read and discuss selections from either John Steinbeck´s The Grapes of Wrath, Zora Neale Houston´s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Margaret Mitchell´s Gone With the Wind, Richard Wright´s Native Son, or Langston Hughes´ Invisible Man.   How is the time period depicted in each? 

Music: Music of the Great Depression

Play a piece of music composed or sung by one of the following artists during the 1930s: Woody Guthrie, Aaron Copland, Mahalia Jackson, and Duke Ellington.  How do the lyrical pieces reflect the time period?  Do you think the music uplifted listeners?  Why or why not?

Math: Then and Now
Research and create a reasonable budget for a family of four living during the Great Depression.  For example, a factory worker made less than $17.00 a week and a doctor made a little over $60.00; a gas stove cost about $20.00 and a shirt about $1.00; Milk was 15 cents a quart and bread was 9 cents a loaf.  Compare to the budget of a modern-day family.

Language Arts: Write About a Current Event
Using their works of art as a basis, ask students to write a first person paper from three perspectives of someone or something in Haystack.  They may assume the identity of one of the people, the horse, or any inantimate object.  Each of the three paragraphs should start, "I am..."
 

 

Subject Matter Connection

Born in Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton is best known for his historical murals and realistic scenes of country life. He focused a large portion of his career as a painter on capturing the American experience. His works, such as Haystack, are often called American Scene paintings, because they depict the rural landscape, its stories, and people.

Benton´s paintings are often characterized by their idyllic vision of country life and the quiet heroism of rural Americans. Haystack was painted in 1938, four years after the artist returned to Missouri after working in New York.

Do you think this is a prosperous farm? Why or why not?


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.