The Poet (Oil on tin)

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From Dr. Henry Adams, Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History:

Thanks for sending me a photograph of the marvelously expressive Thomas Hart Benton painting The Poet, 1937, oil on tin, 4.50 x 6.12 inches. This design was drawn from Benton’s visit to Hollywood.

In 1937, Benton made a trip to Hollywood on commission to produce a series of drawings for Life magazine. The trip resulted in a major painting, Hollywood, 1937, now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, as well as about forty finished drawings, in ink and wash, although for some reason the editors at Life weren’t pleased by what Benton made and never ran the story. Curiously, they did reproduce his painting of Hollywood a year later, when it was shown at the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh. Only a few of Benton’s Hollywood drawings were published in his lifetime. Six of them were reproduced in an article by Harry Salpeter, “A Tour of Hollywood,” in a U. S. Army magazine called Coronet, in February 1940.

Benton’s Hollywood drawings focused not on movie stars but on the industial machine behind the movie industry. These included several drawings of script conferences, including Conference Table, Conference (which portrays William Faulkner with a colleague) and Hollywood Writer. (For reproductions of these see Kara! Ann Marling, Tom Benton and His Drawings, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 1985, p. 103; and Austen Barron Bailley et. al, American Epics, Peabody-Essex Musemn, Salem, Mass., PP-238-129). The drawing Hollywood Writer served as the basis for this painting, executed in 1949, twelve years after the drawing. In 1938, when Benton made a lithograph of this design he retitled it The Poet and noted of the subject: “This is a picture of a script writer in his cubbyhole. He was also a poet of some kind. I’ve forgotten his name.” (See Creekmore fath, The Lithographs of Thomas Hart Benton, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1979, p. 68, #28.)

Interestingly, this is the only one of his Hollywood drawings that he transformed into a lithograph, indicating that he must have particularly liked this design, and aside from his large painting Hollywood, which is a composite of motifs, different from any of the sketches, it seems to have been the only Hollywood drawing which he translated into a painting. If you compare the painting with the original drawing you can see that Benton made many refinements to the design. The title he gave to it, The Poet, is intriguing. While not opposed lo having it viewed as part of his Hollywood series, he clearly thought of it as the vehicle for a larger subject than the other Hollywood drawings. It provides a viewer of the delights and torments of the literary process, which was not unlike his own creative struggles as an artist. I think it touches on some element of the poetic soul in all of us. Thanks so much for bringing this fascinating work to my attention.

A Tour of Hollywood | Drawings by Thomas Hart Benton

“Some while back [in 1937], Thomas Benton, the highly-rated American artist, was despatched to the West Coast to paint a composite picture of life in Hollywood. The half-dozen drawings reproduced in this portfolio are among the by-products of that mission to Hollywood. They range from sketches on the spot to labored elaborations of sketches. The artist’s base of operations was the couch in the luxuriously appointed office of Raymond Griffith, one of the producers for 20th Century Fox. From this couch he made forays into the vast departmentalized domain that is a major moving picture studio, and also a little beyond.” – Harry Salpeter, A Tour of Hollywood: Drawings by Thomas Hart Benton

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