Cradling Wheat, Lithograph on paper, 1939
Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) was renowned for his paintings done in the style known as Regionalism, which was a movement in modern art that occurred solely in America during the 1930s. An explicit reaction against nearly all other simultaneously evolving styles in modern art, Regionalism sought to move away from the abstract in favor of more realistic imagery, although Regionalist art often retains a certain degree of abstraction. In regards to subject matter, regionalist works often shun city life and industrialization while overtly embracing and even romanticizing rural life through appealing images of the American heartland.
In Benton’s work Cradling Wheat, farmhands can be seen hard at work harvesting wheat in a field set within a gently rolling landscape. Indeed, Benton’s sympathy was with the working class and the small farmer unable to gain material advantage in the modern world. He even declared himself an “enemy of modernism,” and for much of his career concentrated on paintings with this undertone, along with murals in public buildings throughout the Midwest.
Old Man Reading, Lithograph on paper, 1941
In Old Man Reading, Benton portrays an elderly farmer reading the newspaper in an unspecified location. However, the wooden beams and simplistic table upon which a lantern rests resemble the loft of an old barn-like structure or perhaps even the attic of a farmhouse. The man’s clothing, while not overly ragged, is surely worn and tired looking – not unlike the figure himself. Such qualities indicate the man’s working-class status – the depiction of which has roots in the 19th century Realist movement in Europe. However, unlike the figures found in Realist artwork, Benton’s Old Man appears at once sculpted and fluid.
Edge of Town, Lithograph on paper, Mid-20th century
Lithography, the method Benton employed in creating each of the works represented here, is one that is at once both simple and complex. It is a process based on the incompatibility of grease and water and, unlike many other forms of printmaking, it does not involve cutting or incising. Instead, the artist first draws the desired image on the surface of the plate (typically limestone, aluminum, or zinc) with a grease crayon or with a brush loaded with a thin grease-based ink. A mixture of nitric acid and gum Arabic is then applied to the entire surface in order to increase the plate’s ability to hold water. Next, water is wiped over the entire surface, creating a thin film; the water is repelled by the grease of the crayon marks but is absorbed by the rest of the plate’s surface. When a roller coated with a grease-based ink is passed over the surface, the ink adheres to the greasy areas drawn, but is rejected by the watery-film (i.e. the parts that have not been drawn on). After the stone is placed on a press, and paper is applied, the pressure of the press transfers the image to the paper