The Hot Bid: ‘The Race’ is on for Thomas Hart Benton litho

Thomas Hart Benton, ‘The Race,’ lithograph, 1942, 8 x 13¼in, full margins. Edition of 250. Signed in pencil, lower right. Estimate: $10,000-$15,000. Image courtesy of Swann Galleries

What you see: The Race, a 1942 Thomas Hart Benton lithograph based on his oil painting titled Homeward Bound. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.

The expert: Todd Weyman, vice president at Swann and director of prints and drawings.

Who was Thomas Hart Benton, and where was he in his career in 1942? He was an American painter, and with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, was a leader in the American Regionalist movement, which focused on scenes of everyday life in America. In 1942, Benton was at the top of his career. He became well-known for murals he painted in 1933 for the Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago and another set in 1932, the Arts of Life in America murals, which were for the Whitney Museum in New York. They’re now at the New Britain Museum of American Art. And in 1934, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine on one of its earliest color covers. That got him mass recognition.

How prolific was he as a printmaker? He made 93 documented lithographs between 1929 and 1974.

This Thomas Hart Benton lithograph is based on an oil painting by Benton titled Homeward Bound. Do we know anything about how he came up with the idea for the image? There’s a quote by him which is not an explanation for why he painted it, but it’s about a study for the painting, in which he says, “Common enough scene in the days of the steam engine. Why did horses so often run with the steam trains while they now pay no attention to the diesels?” The quote gives insight into why he did it – a glimpse of a bygone era. I thought it was about horse versus machine, but the quote shows how we romanticize the past and this view of the American West, which was vanishing.

Did Benton’s approach to printmaking differ when he was translating a painting into a print, and when he was creating an image that would debut as a print? No, it doesn’t differ. It’s standard in that aspect. The majority are derived from his paintings and drawings. When you look at his lithographs from 1929 through 1974, they’re technically and stylistically similar, though they were produced over a 45-year span. There’s virtually no alterations to the style or the technique. After he appeared on the cover of Time in 1934, Benton was approached by a fine art publishing company in New York, Associated American Artists (AAA), which had the idea of democratizing art collecting. It was a mail-order publishing outfit. You’d pay a dollar or two dollars and pick a lithograph.

So Associated American Artists was kind of like Columbia House, which promised a bunch of records for a penny, that sort of thing? Yes. The general idea was to make art affordable for the masses. Associated American Artists approached well-known artists like Benton to give oomph to their venture. Benton was associated with AAA for most of his lithographs. They weren’t really original things. The art was made previously to pulling and submitting it to AAA for a lithograph. Because he was better-known, AAA lithographs by Benton might be $2, and those by lesser-known artists might be $1.

How hands-on was Benton in the creation of his lithographs? Did he hand off the artwork and stay away until it was time to correct the proofs, or did he do more than that? He was fairly well-involved. He worked with the lithographer to create the image. He drew the lithograph on the lithographic stones, and sometimes on a zinc plate.

The print run for this Thomas Hart Benton lithograph was 250. Is that a pretty typical edition size for Benton? That is typical, because Benton worked so frequently with the AAA. 250 is the edition size for most of the editions issued by AAA.

How well does the image exploit the advantages that lithography has to offer? I’d say it makes very full use of lithography. The main two points are the fluidity of the drawing and the tonal nuances – they are the touchstones of lithography. You don’t see Benton produce prints in etchings. Lithography suits his work. Another point is his painting style is colorful, and he never worked in color lithography. It would have been available, but not with AAA. Benton never sought it out, and he never hand-colored lithographs, which other artists sought to do.

So Benton was really more interested in painting. I think that’s it, and that color lithography is more work. For Benton, his work went into painting, not printmaking.

Can you talk a bit about how the darks and lights come across here – the tonal nuances? In Benton paintings, as in his lithographs, there’s strong chiaroscuro, the play of light and dark. He used it to create a mood that’s present in his oils. It harkens back to the modern art movements that he would have seen while studying in Paris between 1909 and 1912: Fauvism, Synchromism. It comes out in his paintings.

How much did George Miller, the printmaker who translated Benton’s images into lithographs, add to the quality and the impact of the lithographs? Tons. George Miller was a genius printer. Benton could not have been lined up with a better lithographer.

What is the Thomas Hart Benton lithograph like in person? What I take away from it is how rich the ink is and how it stands out on the sheet. It’s not terribly thick – it’s more of a sheen against the whiteness of the paper. When you photograph it, it becomes matte and flat. It loses something.

What’s your favorite detail of the lithograph? The shadow of the horse in the pond in the foreground, just how the light catches the horse and creates the shadow in the water. I think that’s cool. I also love the clouds in Benton’s work. Jackson Pollock was a student of Benton’s. If you block out the ground and look at the clouds in the upper half of the lithograph, you get the start of abstract expressionism.

We know how many lithographs of The Race were printed. Do we know how many survive? Based on what we see, it’s likely that most of the edition of 250 is around. Benton was a famous artist. This print would have been carefully preserved.

How often do you see this Thomas Hart Benton lithograph come up at auction? I see at least one a year. It’s not such a scarce image.

What condition is the lithograph in? It’s in excellent condition. It has full margins. A side note on AAA prints in particular – AAA sold them matted and framed as well. It was standard practice to paper-tape the back of the lithograph to the front of the matte. When people removed the prints from the frames, they’d cut it from the matte and remove half an inch off the margins. With AAA prints, collectors ask, “Does it have full margins or not?” Frequently, they do not. When an AAA print has full margins like this one does, it’s definitely a boost.

There are five other Thomas Hart Benton lithographs in the auction. How does The Race compare to them? This is less of a static image. It has more of the feel of a frame from a motion picture reel. That’s probably part of why collectors are drawn to this image. It puts it over other lithographs that feel more posed.

Was Benton a movie-goer? Might he have been thinking cinematically when he executed this image? Not only would he have had it in mind, he did promotional lithographs for the 1940 film The Grapes of Wrath, commissioned by 20th Century Fox.

The Grapes of Wrath set by Benton–those were purely lithographs? Not paintings first? Yes.

What’s the world auction record for The Race, and for any Thomas Hart Benton lithograph? For The Race, we do have the world auction record, set in November 2015. It was $37,500. We had the overall world auction record for a Benton lithograph until two years ago. The current record of $45,000 was set in January 2019 at Kamelot Auctions by a lithograph from 1936 called Jesse James.

Why will this image stick in your memory? The image itself is a rendering of a bygone era, this nostalgia for the American Old West, with the combination of the galloping horse and the steam engine. It’s gripping, and there’s something iconic about it.

How to bid: The Thomas Hart Benton lithograph of The Race is lot 161 in the 19th & 20th Century Art sale taking place at Swann Auction Galleries on March 4. Bid absentee or live online through LiveAuctioneers.

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By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY

Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction.