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
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Observation and Slow Looking :
Scientific Investigation and Reasoning
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.
The student uses scientific inquiry methods during laboratory and field investigations. The student is expected to:
- Plan and implement comparative and descriptive investigations by making observations, asking well-defined questions, and using appropriate equipment and technology;
- Design and implement experimental investigations by making observations, asking well-defined questions, formulating testable hypotheses, and using appropriate equipment and technology;
- Collect and record data using the International System of Units (SI) and qualitative means such as labeled drawings, writing, and graphic organizers;
- Construct tables and graphs, using repeated trials and means, to organize data and identify patterns; and
- Analyze data to formulate reasonable explanations, communicate valid conclusions supported by the data, and predict trends.
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
- 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
- What details of the scene can you observe in this painting? Depending on the comments, ask the students if the comment was an actual observation or an inference.
- What limits do you have in making observations about the scene of this painting? (Ex. Use of only one sense—sight)
- What quantitative observations can you make about this scene?
- What qualitative observations can you make about this scene?
- Based on the visual observations you have made, what can you infer about this painting’s subject?
- What questions arise when observing this painting?
- If you could “step into this painting,” what other things could you observe about this scene? Would you climb a tree, help the men work, walk into the ramshackle house, ride a horse, or pick a leaf next the barbed-wire fence? As you stroll through the painting, stop on the dirt road to investigate the plant life. What kinds of leaves do you see?
- Focus on the foreground of the painting. Discuss the plant life represented there.
- Research the function of stomata in leaves and/or refers to notes below.
- Investigation: Compare the Stomata from the Leaves of Several Species of Plant
- Materials: 3 leaves (1 from 3 different species), compound light microscope, 3 microscope slides, clear nail polish, transparent tape
- Collect three leaves from different types of plants.
- Apply a thick layer (at least one square centimeter) of clear nail polish onto the underside of the leaf surface being studied.
- Allow a few minutes for the nail polish to dry completely.
- Tape a piece of clear cellophane tape to the dried nail polish layer.
- Gently peel the nail polish layer from the leaf by pulling on a corner of the tape and "peeling" the polish off the leaf. This is the leaf impression.
- Tape your peeled impression to a microscope slide. Use scissors to trim away any excess tape. Label the slide with plant name. (Optional: include Kingdom classification)
- Examine the leaf impression under a light microscope at 400X.
- Locate fields where there are numerous stomata. Draw the leaf surface with stomata in the table. *
- Count all the stomata in one microscopic field. Record the number on your data table.
- Repeat counts for at least three other distinct microscopic fields. Record all the counts. Determine an average number per microscopic field.
- From the average number/400X microscopic field, calculate the stomata per mm2 by multiplying by 8.
- Follow procedures 2-11 with the other leaves.
*Data Table: (PDF coming soon.)
1. Which leaf had the most stomata? What is a possible explanation?
2. Explain, in detail, how guard cells open and close stomata?
3. At what time of day would stomata be closed and why?
4. Why does the lower epidermis have more stomata than the upper epidermis of a leaf?
5. Define transpiration.
6. What two gases move in and out of the leaf stomata?
7. What do a larger number of leaf stomata indicate about the growing climate of that plant?
Subject Matter Connection
This lesson guides students to make well-thought and articulated observations and inferences through looking at quantitative and qualitative observations. Working with microscopes gives middle school students an opportunity to investigate the parts of life that are too small to see. Experiments should help explain how things work and instigate questions that require further research. The students will use critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions.
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.