1951 Benton flood painting sells for $1.9 million

Thomas Hart Benton, Homecoming (Kaw Valley)

A timely and poignant painting of the wreckage caused by massive flooding in 1951 recently came up for auction at Sotheby’s.  The painting, “Flood Disaster” by Thomas Hart Benton, exceeded the high estimate of $1.2 million, selling for $1.9 million. The painting depicts the destruction of two homes along the Kansas River.  A woman stands in the foreground, arms upraised in prayer.

The moving image was a common sight at a time when massive flooding in Kansas and Missouri had wiped out crops and homes.  The Kansas and Missouri  rivers swelled to 70 times their normal size, eventually killing 17 people and displacing more than 518,000 residents. President Harry Truman, touring the damage by airplane, declared the disaster “one of the worst this country has ever suffered from water.”

Benton mailed a lithograph of the painting to each of the members of U.S. congress, urging them to expand the flood relief bill. The bill didn’t pass. Eventually Truman allocated $113 million to help relieve damages estimated to be more than $1 billion. You can view an Associated Press image of Benton with the preliminary sketches of the painting and holding a copy of the lithograph here and an image of the painting here, along with the AP article.

Benton previously dealt with similar subject matter in 1937, illustrating flood conditions for the Kansas City Star and the St. Louis Post Dispatch.  Two of these drawings were used to produce the lithograhs Flood and Investigation, illustrated below.

Thomas Hart Benton, Investigation

Thomas Hart Benton, Flood

Image List:
1. Homecoming – Kaw Valley
1951, Lithograph

2. Investigation
1937, Lithograph
9.37 x 12.67 inches

3.  Flood
1937, Lithograph 
12.25 x 9.25 inches

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