Essay by Henry Adams
Author of Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original
This Sugar Cane painting (above) was a sort of indirect result of several commissions that Thomas Hart Benton was working on at that time, which had been arranged by his New York art gallery, Associated American Artists, and which paid his way to Louisiana. In 1943, to aid the war effort, and with financing from Abbott Laboratories in Chicago, Benton went to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to sketch LST troop ships being constructed, and then went down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans on one of the newly built ships, where it joined the fleet. While in Louisiana, he made sketches of the refineries in Baton Rouge on commission from the Standard Oil Company, and these drawings resulted a painting which Benton considered “one of my best,” namely Fluid Catalytic Crackers (M.I.T. Museum of Art).
Benton then took advantage of being in Louisiana to sketch the agricultural work of the region, which he had visited once before, in 1928, while taking a long sketching trip around the United States. The 1928 sketches of Louisiana provided the basis for one of his best-known early paintings, Louisiana Rice Fields (1928; Brooklyn Museum), as well as for most of the major elements in his panel The South in his great mural America Today (1930; AXA-Equitable, New York).
In 1943 he returned to this sort of subject matter, sketching both work in the rice fields and the cutting of sugar cane. I suspect he was interested in the contrast between this sort of rugged agricultural labor, using simple tools, and the more modern, thoroughly mechanized work of the oil refineries he had just been documenting. His sketches of the rice fields resulted in several paintings, of which the most important is probably Rice Threshing, (oil on canvas mounted on panel, 32 x 55 ½ ; private collection) completed two years after his Louisiana visit, in 1945. His drawing of the cutting of sugar cane resulted in this painting, which must have been painted in Kansas City immediately after he returned from his trip, and is dated 1943.
This Sugar Cane painting was included in the exhibition Thomas H. Benton, held at the University of Kansas Museum of Art, Lawrence, Kansas, April 12-May 18, 1958; and it was reproduced in a full-page illustration in Matthew Baigell’s monograph Thomas Hart Benton, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1974, plate 155, the illustrations for which were selected by Benton himself. It was also included in the exhibition I curated in 1986, Thomas Hart Benton: An Intimate View, which opened at the Fine Arts Gallery, Federal Reserve Bank, Kansas City, Missouri, October 8, l985-January 25, l986, and traveled to museums around the United States. It is illustrated in the accompanying exhibition catalogue. It is also mentioned in an exhibition catalogue written by J. Richard Gruber, Thomas Hart Benton and The American South, Augusta Georgia, Morris Museum of Art, 1998.
Three drawings made in 1943 in Louisiana of the harvesting of sugar cane are reproduced in the book Benton Drawings, University of Missouri Press, 1968—Sugar Mill A, Sugar Mill B, and Sugar Cane Field—although none of the three directly relate to this painting.
There is a small study for the painting, almost identical in design, oil on board, 8 ½ x 12 inches, which was acquired from the artist by Samuel Sosland of Kansas City and is now in a private collection in New Hampshire. It should be obvious that this is one of Benton’s largest and most impressive works and that he valued it highly, as is indicated by the full-page illustration in Baigell’s monograph.
1943, Oil and tempera on canvas mounted on panel
31 x 48 inches
2. Rice Threshing
oil on canvas mounted on panel
32 x 55 ½ inches