Construction Scene (Excavation)

Thomas Hart Benton, Construction Scene (Excavation)
Essay by Henry Adams
Author of Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original
I included [this drawing] in an exhibition of Benton’s best drawings organized by the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle.  At that time it was still owned by the Benton Trust.  You’ll find it reproduced in the book that accompanied this show, Thomas Hart Benton: Drawing from Life, Abbeville Press, New York, 1990, page 20.

Benton made a few other construction site drawings around 1924, some of which may well record this same construction site.  For example, Karal Ann Marling reproduces two ink and wash drawings of steam shovels, one undated, the other dated 1924, in her book Tom Benton and His Drawings, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, Missouri, 1985.  They are reproduced on pages 31 and 78.  Very likely both record the same construction project as your drawing.  Of the drawings of this sort that I’ve seen, the one you have is in my judgment the best–it has the best observed detail, and the most panoramic view of the scene, as well as the best-resolved composition, with a nice organization of spiraling forms.

Around the time he was making these drawings Benton also produced his first paintings of construction scenes, such as Construction, 1923, in the Benton Trust, and a lost painting that was reproduced on the front page of the New York American  in 1927.  You’ll find these works reproduced in my book Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1989, pages 92 and 150.  Benton’s friends Boardman Robinson and Jan Matulka also made drawings of construction scenes around this time, probably under Benton’s influence.

Boardman Robinson, Trade and Commerce in the United States--the Twentieth CenturyUltimately this series of drawings led up to the first American murals to feature this sort of subject matter, Boardman Robinson’s Trade and Commerce in the United States–the Twentieth Century, in his mural A History of Commerce, 1929, for the Harzfeld Department Store in Pittsburgh (now owned by the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center), and Thomas Hart Benton’s City Building in his mural America Today, 1930, for the New School for Social Research in New York (now owned by AXA-Equitable Life Insurance in New York).  These were the two projects that introduced the working man into American mural painting and provided the starting point for the Federal mural programs of the 1930s.

In short, this drawing is not only authentic but is quite significant within Benton’s oeuvre, both for its quality and because it represents a moment when he was introducing a new kind of subject matter into American art.

Image List

1. Thomas Hart Benton
Construction Scene (Excavation)
1924, Crayon
13 3/4 x 16 7/8 inches
Signed and dated lower right

2. Boardman Robinson
Trade and Commerce in the United States–the Twentieth Century
History of Commerce Mural
1929, paint on canvas

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