Figure Study for "Over the Mountains," a panel of "The American Historical Epic," circa 1924 signed 'Benton' (lower right) gouache and ink on paper 17 3/4 x 13 1/4in
PROVENANCE: The artist William Neuse, New York John Neuse, Connecticut Acquired by the present owner, 1976
In the early 1920s, Thomas Hart Benton began work on his first mural project, The American Historical Epic, which he intended to portray the history of the United States, from earliest settlement to modern times. The venture marked a new direction in American mural painting, away from the genteel costume dramas and allegories of Beaux-Arts mural painting. Strongly influenced by Marxist literature, Benton conceived this as "a people's history" and included many scenes of racial and economic conflict. Since no architect would provide him with a wall to work on, he planned this as a series of seventy-five free-standing paintings, arranged in "chapters" of about five or six paintings each. Of these he completed about eighteen, before abandoning the project--including the first two chapters, of five paintings each, which are now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. This is a study for the African-American figure at the lower left hand corner of the painting "Over the Mountains" in chapter two, which shows the conquest of the mountainous interior region of the United States.
Benton's early mural project was recently the subject of a doctoral dissertation by Austen Barron Bailley, "Painting The 'American Historical Epic'" Thomas Hart Benton and Race, 1919-1936," University of California, Santa Barbara, 2009. Throughout the 1920s, Benton exhibited works from the series at the Architectural League and other venues, and this eventually led to his first major mural commission in 1930, to paint "America Today" for the New School for Social Research.
We would like to thank Dr. Henry Adams for his assistance cataloguing this lot.
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