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
- OVERCOME FEAR Overcome fear of ambiguity / fear of failure or being wrong / fear of the unknown
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
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.
• Compare and contrast works of art to find similarities and influences.
• Learn about local painters.
• Write letters to artists using appropriate formats.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Although this landscape cannot be identified as a specific site, it evokes the gentle hills and valleys of the southern United States. Benton identified this scene as a hill farm in North Carolina, a place he had visited in 1928. He found this area fascinating because the communities resisted change and continued older traditions. In this rural scene, two men build a haystack around a support pole, while a third man on horseback delivers more hay.
This painting is an example of the artist’s mature style. The composition is dominated by the central haystack. The rolling hills, the mass of trees, the clouds, and the curving road enclose the haystack and repeat its rounded contours. Rich earthtones – browns, greens, and golds – unify the composition. Benton was interested in placing shapes to suggest three-dimensional volumes and deep space. Here the overlapping hills and clumps of trees and the alternation of areas of light and shadow provide a sense of space. Benton also used the contrasts of light and shadow to make objects look three-dimensional and to add drama to the composition.
Benton’s study of Italian Renaissance painting inspired him to work in the medium of tempera, dry pigments mixed with egg yolk and water. Unlike oil paints, which dry slowly, egg tempera dries quickly to a smooth, hard surface. Dynamic brushstrokes animate the landscape and give the haystack a lively energy.
Thomas Hart Benton was one of a group of artists called Regionalists, who during the 1920s and 1930s, turned away from the influence of contemporary European painting to concentrate on depictions of rural life in the United States. Benton was born in Missouri in 1889. He is best known for his realistic scenes of country life and historical murals, the most famous of which is a series on the history of Missouri in the State House in Jefferson City. Benton studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and in 1908 moved to Paris. Initially he was an abstract painter, but by 1920 Benton had abandoned what he called “the modern experiment” to paint the histories, landscapes, and people of rural America in murals and in smaller works like Haystack. On Christmas Eve 1934, he became the first artist to appear on the cover of Time magazine. The accompanying article focused on his portrayal of country life.
During the 1930s, the era of the Great Depression, the economic hardships and related societal conflicts prompted some American artists to turn away from abstract art and to address subjects that celebrated rural life. This group of artists, called Regionalists, rejected contemporary European influences, believing that the true expression of American art could be found in the depiction of the life of small towns and farms.
What do you notice about the colors in this painting?
What are the main shapes that make up the composition?
Where do your eyes go to first? Do you think the artist’s composition is drawing our attention to one area of the work? Which area?
What can you say about the position of the horizon?
The artist was interested in three-dimensionality and suggesting space. What tools does he use to suggest depth and perspective? Think about the horizon, about color and shading and about overlapping elements in the picture.
This artist is one of a group of artists called Regionalists, who during the 1920s and 1930s, turned away from the influence of contemporary European painting to concentrate on depictions of rural life in the United States. What do we understand by ‘rural’? Do you recognize the location depicted here?
What brushstrokes are used here? Do you think this is a realistic depiction of the landscape? Why?
If you were to employ all your senses and imagine yourself in this landscape, what would you see/ hear/ smell/ feel?
How would you describe the mood of this landscape? Is it a mainly positive rendition of life on a farm? Why, or why not?
What time of day/ time of year do you think it is?
The artist cleverly uses color to convey a sense of peace and calm. Describe how he achieves this.
At the same time, the swirling forms of the curving road and the rolling hills support the calm vibe of the work. How would this painting be different if the artist had used harder, more straight forms?
Rich earthtones – browns, greens, and golds – unify the composition. How would this work be different if the artist had used brighter, stronger colors?
The composition is dominated by the central haystack and the farmers working on the land. Why do you think the artist wanted to emphasize these elements?
During the 1930s, the era of the Great Depression, the economic hardships and related societal conflicts prompted this artist to turn away from contemporary and abstract images, and to address subjects that celebrated rural life. Do you think the countryside offers a sense of stability and of calm? Why?
The artist idealized the landscape in order to escape the realities of everyday life in America. But he also conveyed a strong message that life was better before. Do you agree that the past offers comfort?
Do you think it is good for an artist to offer us an escape, or should art confront us with our present?
• Teach the proper format for writing letters in preparation for writing letters to artists.
• Have each student identify one of the three focus artists whose style influenced his or her landscape painting. Invent an address for the artist based on the painting (e.g., Neil Welliver, Duck Trap River, Lincolnville, ME), then write a letter to the artist explaining how his painting has influenced the student.
• As a class, learn about local painters. Write a letter inviting a local painter to speak to the class about his or her art.
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.
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.