Colorful and energetic scenes of World War II heroism make a splash in the Chrysler Museum of Art’s special focus exhibition Thomas Hart Benton and the Navy. Experience ship and submarine life through two dozen paintings and drawings by this iconic American painter from the Navy Art Collection.
The exhibition is on view from May 19 to September 24, 2017 in the Museum’s Focus Gallery (G. 229). Admission is free.
Best known for his pastiche celebrations of American history and everyday life in the Heartland, Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) firmly established a reputation in the 1930s as one of America’s most patriotic painters. Together with Grant Wood, creator of American Gothic, he led a movement known as Regionalism. These artists used familiar scenes to engage a wide range of audiences with fine art, in contrast to the popularity of European trends in abstract painting among other American painters of their generation.
By the outbreak of World War II in America in 1941, Benton’s work was well-known through exhibitions and major public commissions for murals in libraries, banks, and government buildings, including the State Capitol in his native Missouri. He also made many watercolors, drawings, and prints and was an influential teacher at the Art Students League in New York City, and later at the Kansas City Art Institute in his home state.
“Benton’s legible style has long made him a favorite,” says Alex Mann, the Chrysler Museum’s former Brock Curator of American Art. “Like John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, or Sinclair Lewis, Benton saw powerful stories in his immediate surroundings. He believed that art could convey profound messages without using the complicated visual games of Cubism or the dense symbolic language of Freudian psychoanalysis.”
Thomas Hart Benton and the Navy presents an important series of works from the peak years of the artist’s fame and influence. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he used his art to honor American troops and to maintain national morale throughout World War II. With sponsorship from Abbott Laboratories, a leading maker of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, Benton served as a commissioned artist-correspondent in the U.S. Navy, with privileged access to shipyards and submarines. The works in this series are not recreations of famous foreign battles as imagined based on photographs, but images drawn from his firsthand observations.
“No artist understood better than Benton how to invest the most mundane moments of military life with a heroic sense of purpose,” Mann says. “Visitors will cheer the triumphal christening of a new ship in the large painting She’s Off, but Benton carefully balances this exuberance with quiet scenes of life below deck like Slumber Deep, where sailors rest deep inside the USS Dorado submarine, which was later lost in action. He presents the Navy as a giant machine in which every sailor is an essential, though often invisible, gear.”
Benton worked as an artist-correspondent in 1943 and 1944, and his resulting series then toured the nation. Some images also appeared on posters and advertisements for war bonds. Following the war, Abbott Laboratories donated these pictures to the government, where they became part of the Navy Art Collection. They are loaned for this exhibition from the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C.
“It is a privilege to borrow and present a large series of works by one of America’s most distinctive and beloved artists,” says Erik Neil, Director of the Chrysler Museum. “These rarely seen Navy pictures were an especially personal and passionate project, showing Benton’s storytelling skills at their finest.”
Through its presentation of this exhibition of naval art, the Chrysler Museum is proud to join a year of celebrations throughout Hampton Roads honoring the 100th anniversary of the founding of Naval Station Norfolk. Shortly after the base opened, during the final months of World War I in 1918, Thomas Hart Benton served here. His assignments as an architectural draftsman while stationed in Norfolk were a turning point in his artistic career, leading him to a richer appreciation of everyday American life.
“The new air-planes, the blimps, the dredges, the ships of the base… tore me away from all of my grooved habits, from my play with colored cubes and classic attenuations,” Benton later wrote in his autobiography, describing this transformative moment. “I left for good the art-for-art’s-sake world in which I had hitherto lived,” he wrote, describing the sense of artistic purpose that he found in Norfolk.
The works of art in Thomas Hart Benton and the Navy demonstrate that Benton’s commitment to storytelling and patriotic subjects remained a driving force deep into his career. Though the series is not autobiographical, its images of anonymous midshipmen loading cargo, drinking coffee, or enjoying local entertainment speak poignantly to the ways in which the war touched the lives of thousands who never saw combat.
“This exhibition will stir the hearts of viewers,” Mann says. “There is an immediacy and poignancy to each work, showing that Benton was more than just a pictorial journalist. He empathized with these sailors and put soul into each picture.”
Thomas Hart Benton and the Navy is paired with another show that highlights Coastal Virginia and its relationship with the seas:
Glen McClure: The Shipyard Workers of Hampton Roads. Together these unique exhibitions anchor a dynamic summer program exploring Norfolk’s past and present connections with its harbor and with the Navy and the many shipbuilding firms that have shaped the city’s identity and destiny.
In honor of the communities that these two debuting exhibitions celebrate, the Chrysler Museum offers a special Third Thursday on the evening of May 18, 2017. Military members, shipyard workers, and Museum Members may attend for free.
Thomas Hart Benton and the Navy is on public view May 19 to September 24, 2017. Admission is free.