Cowboy at the Well

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Thanks for sending me the image of the marvelous small painting by Thomas Hart Benton, Cowboy at the Well, circa 1946, 7 x 7 inches.  I remember seeing this painting years ago in a private collection in Kansas City and it’s certainly authentic.  It carries labels on the back from the ACA Galleries on West 57th Street in New York; from the Museum of Art, University of Connecticut; and from the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe.  The label from the Museum of Art, University of Connecticut indicates that at the time, 1973, it was in the Benton estate.  An amusing oddity of the painting is that Benton forgot to indicate the vertical support of the windmill, so it seems to be floating in air.  To my eye this little quirk only adds to the painting’s interest and vitality.

This painting is a preliminary study for Open Country, 1952, which is in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and which is reproduced in the Matthew Baigell book Thomas Hart Benton, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York, 1973, plate 189.  A much more roughly executed grisaille study for this same composition,  7 x 7 inches, was acquired by Senator William Benton, the great patron of Reginald Marsh, and was sold at Sotheby’s, New York on 16 November 2018.

The Nelson-Atkins painting came to the museum from the estate of David L. And Elise B. Sheffrey.  David Sheffrey was a lawyer and close friend of Benton, who sometime advised him on legal matters.

I believe that the imagery of all these paintings was inspired by a trip west that Benton took in late 1939 with Colonel Robert Graham, who was the father of one of Benton’s students, Robert McDonald Graham. Graham was buying horses for the French light artillery, and the trip went through the plains country of Nebraska, the Dakotas, Eastern Wyoming and Montana.

Benton made many drawings during this trip, and two of them, The Bull and Inspection, both of which are reproduced in the book Benton Drawings (University of Missouri Press, 1968, pp. 6 and 8) show a windmill and water tank very similar to the one in your painting.  Benton also made a lithograph The Corral, reproduced in Creekmore Fath’s book on Benton’s lithographs (University of Texas Press, Austin, 1979, p. 162, no. 71), which also seems to portray this same windmill and water tank.

My guess is that this painting is a bit of a composite, and that Benton based the windmill and water tank on drawings he made during his trip with Colonel Graham, and then combined this motif with another landscape drawing he had executed on this same trip, which from the terrain may well have been made in Wyoming.   Your painting is rather extraordinary in its detail and its evocation of the brilliant colors and clear atmosphere of the American west.  It has all the qualities of the final painting, but on a smaller scale.


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