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Thomas Hart Benton
(American, 1889–1975)
Prodigal Son
1939
lithograph on paper, ed. 250, 10" x 13 1/4"

Gift of Jonathan Sax

Thomas Hart Benton was the son of a United States congressman and the grandnephew of a senator, born and raised in Neosho, Missouri amid heated political discussions about the developing Midwest. As a teenager he drew sketches and cartoons for a local paper. He left Missouri in 1907 for his first advanced art training, at the Chicago Art Institute, and from 1908 to 1911 he studied at the Academie Julien in Paris, where he painted both in the manner of post-Impressionism and abstract modernism, and in the manner of the Classical and Renaissance art of the museums, particularly that of Tintoretto and El Greco. Returning to the United States in 1912, Benton lived in New York City, where his art continued to fluctuate between visual realism and the bold abstract experiments in color and form of Synchronism and Constructivism.

By 1918, as his contemporaries committed themselves to experiments with abstraction, Benton’s Modernist influences began to wear off, and he devoted himself to a ten-year-long series titled the “American Historical Epic.” It was during this period that his mature figurative style began to crystallize, as he acted on a desire to produce a wholly American art with themes in history, folklore and the daily life of the American people. By the early 1930s, Benton had painted and sketched his way across the country, recording the American environment and its inhabitants. It was natural that he came to be associated with the “regionalist” group of artists, which included Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry, Charles Burchfield and Reginald Marsh.
In a note for Creekmore Fath’s 1969 catalogue of his lithographs, Benton described this work as a “Study for a painting - owned by the Dallas Museum (of Fine Arts). Picture of the belated return of the ‘son.’ The house was at the foot of Boston Hill in Chilmark, Martha’s Vineyard. It has long since hit the ground.”
An inveterate storyteller, Benton often recast Biblical stories and mythological characters in contemporary American terms. The timeless Biblical narrative of the return of the prodigal son, seen in light of post-Depression and post-Dust Bowl America, speaks volumes about the despairing conditions of rural life, as millions left small farms to seek more lucrative opportunities in larger cities.

 
 
 
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