A visiting masterwork by celebrated regional artist Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889-1975) is the centerpiece of a small exhibition exploring the artist’s expressive narrative style and interest in capturing the social history of his era. The 1946 painting titled New England Editor depicts New Bedford, Massachusetts, newspaper editor George A. Hough. He is portrayed as an embodiment of fair and honest journalism. Benton shows him writing the word “unless”—a reference to the editor’s legendary approach to journalism that unless the reporter had exhausted all possible sources, the story was not ready to hand in.
For the first time ever, this oil painting is displayed alongside Benton prints and a watercolor from the collection of the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts. Benton’s expressive narrative style and larger interest in capturing contemporary American life—the life of everyday people—are clearly evident in his black and white lithographs. In these examples of Benton’s work we see the sinewy curves of arms accustomed to heavy lifting and little food, the worried brows and the loose skin of the aged that read as heroic, weary but stalwart. Benton’s subjects are resilient, humble, and infinitely admirable.
“Thomas Hart Benton’s New England Editor is a stellar example of the artist’s sinuous, signature style. As a part of the American Scene Painting movement, Benton’s recognizable artwork attempted to depict distinctively American values such as the honesty and integrity portrayed in this painting. Our visitors will be given a chance to contemplate Benton’s style and impact, as well as to reassess his message in our current social and political climate,” said Maggie North, Assistant Curator of Art at the Springfield Museums.
“We anticipate finding unexpected connections between the outstanding portrait of George Hough and our own Benton works,” said Heather Haskell, Director of Art Museums and Vice-President of the Springfield Museums, “and look forward to revealing these discoveries to our visitors and community.”
Standing in front of the portrait, now installed in the Early 20th Century Gallery, the remarkable colors found in the New England Editor animate the space and draw the viewer’s eye to other paintings in the room. The rich phthalo blue of Springfield native Harold Rabinovitz’s Café Scene (c. 1939) is visible out of the corner of your eye as you look at the Benton, a flash like a blue bird that makes you turn your head to see what you might otherwise miss. Similarly the azure blue of the sky in Georgia O’Keeffe’s New Mexican Landscape (1930) harmonizes with a quiet serenity with the sea-blue-green of the walls that surround Benton’s editor, evoking the out-of-doors and reminding us all that color is one of the many rich gifts of this earth.
Supported in part by Art Bridges, related programing in the fall will focus on exploring notions of integrity in the news, contemporary communication, and the use of portraiture for political or social commentary.
The Benton masterpiece is on loan to the Springfield Museums as part of a six-year, five-museum collaboration initiated by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and supported by Terra-Art Bridges. The museums involved are the Boston MFA, the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts (Springfield, Mass.), Fenimore Art Museum (Cooperstown, N.Y.), Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute (Utica, N.Y.) and the Mattatuck Museum (Waterbury, Conn.). The cohort museums will work together to co-organize a series of traveling exhibitions over the next six years, drawing on the combined breadth and depth of their holdings and to encourage engagement with American art within different communities.
“The Springfield Museums are honored to engage in this exciting new partnership with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts as well as three renowned art museums in New England funded by the Terra-Art Bridges Initiative,” said Kay Simpson, President of the Springfield Museums. “The timing of the collaboration coincides with a period of tremendous growth and heightened visibility for the Springfield Museums and we are well positioned to leverage the access to American art collections and resources that the multi-year partnership will bring to our expanding audiences.”
This Museum collaboration is made possible by Terra-Art Bridges, an initiative of the Terra Foundation for American Art and Art Bridges, Inc.
Thomas Hart Benton, New England Editor, 1946, Oil and tempera on gessoed panel, (46.1456). Collection Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection – Charles Henry Hayden Fund. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.