Waves, 1920 signed 'Benton' (lower right) oil on paper 7 1/2 x 8 3/4in, image
This work will be included in the forthcoming Thomas Hart Benton catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Thomas Hart Benton Catalogue Raisonné Foundation. Committee Members: Dr. Henry Adams, Jessie Benton, Anthony Benton Gude, Andrew Thompson and Michael Owen.
In 1921, through his friendship with the modernist painter Arthur Carles, Benton was invited to contribute to an exhibition of avant-garde American painting held at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. There his work attracted the attention of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, the creator of the Barnes collection (which has recently been moved from Merion to central Philadelphia, with much fanfare).
Arguably the most important and discriminating American collector of modern art at that time, Barnes acquired several works from Benton, including a large charcoal drawing titled Waves, 1920, 20 ¼ x 23 inches (collection The Barnes Foundation; reproduced in Polly Burroughs, Thomas Hart Benton, A Portrait, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, New York, 1981, p. 71, and in Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton, An American Original, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1989, page 101). This is a color study for Waves, closely related in composition to Barnes's pastel.
For a brief period Benton and his writer-friend Thomas Craven made regular visits Philadelphia to visit with Barnes, who discussed commissioning them to write a history of modern art and its formal principles. But around 1924, without prior warning, shortly before leaving for Paris, Barnes wrote Benton an extremely hostile letter that ended their friendship. Despite its sour ending, Benton's period of contact with Barnes had significant repercussions. Benton later published the text he had begun writing for Barnes in Arts Magazine in 1926-27 under the title "The Mechanics of Form Organization in Painting." This was the first significant publication on abstract composition by an American painter, and strongly influenced Benton's pupil Jackson Pollock.
The subject of waves is one that first attracted Benton's interest when he was a young student at the Art Institute of Chicago and attended an exhibition of Japanese prints owned by Frank Lloyd Wright, including Hokusai's famous print The Great Wave. Among his other representations of this subject is a large decorative screen executed a few years after this painting which is strikingly reminiscent of Hokusai (see Adams, 1989, page 148). This painting, like the large charcoal drawing in the Barnes collection, was executed on Martha's Vineyard in 1920Benton's first visit to an island which he returned to every summer afterwards up to the time of his death.
We would like to thank Dr. Henry Adams for his assistance cataloguing this lot.