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Image of Cattle Loading, West Texas

Thomas Hart Benton , (Apr 15, 1889–Jan 19, 1975)

Cattle Loading, West Texas

1928-1929
18 1/8 in. x 38 3/16 in. (46.04 cm x 97 cm)

Medium and Support: Oil and opaque watercolor on canvas
Credit Line: Museum purchase
Accession Number: 1934.38
Current Location: On view : 103

Commentary

In this painting Thomas Hart Benton portrays the moving of cattle to market, a scene that he witnessed during his travels in 1928 on an ambitious sketching expedition—one that took him from New York to the steel towns of western Pennsylvania and the mining country of West Virginia, to the cotton and rice fields of the South, and through the oil towns and cattle country across the Texas panhandle to New Mexico.1 The long illness and death of his father in 1924 had brought Benton back from New York City to his boyhood home in Missouri after an absence of over a decade, and the deathbed reconciliation with his estranged father had a profound effect on the artist: "while I watched my father die and listened to the voices of his friends.... I was moved by a great desire to know more of the America which I had glimpsed in the suggestive words of his old cronies.”2 In biographical terms, these travels through the backwoods of America were part of Benton's growing interest in "a peoples' history" as depicted in his American Historical Epic mural cycle of 1919-26. In contrast to those versions of history that glorified great men, political events, or military battles, Benton later explained, "I wanted to show that the peoples' behaviors, their action on the opening land, was the primary reality of American life. Of course this was a form of Turnerism.”3 Cattle Loading, West Texas is but one of a group of paintings that derive from sketches made on the 1928 trip in which Benton concentrates on this peoples' history of Americans at work: steelworkers, coal miners, cotton pickers, rice threshers, and cowboys.4

Cattle Loading is perhaps as close as Benton ever came to representing Frederick Jackson Turner's thesis of the closing of the American frontier.5 Cattle had been plentiful in Texas since the days of the conquistadores, but with markets so far away and transportation so unreliable they were of little economic value until after the Civil War. The construction of railroads connecting Chicago to Kansas put the great Chicago cattle market within reach, and the first major cattle drive from Texas to Kansas took place in 1866. For the next twenty years, large herds were driven north along the Chisholm Trail to Abilene, Kansas, on the Kansas Pacific Railroad line. It was this "Long Drive" of several thousand Texas longhorns slowly north across the unsettled grasslands that produced the distinct phenomenon of the American cowboy and the riotous "cow towns" that were his destination. As the railroads pushed westward, other loading points sprang up, and by 1893 the Texas & Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads spanned the breadth of Texas, linking it to the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad line to Kansas City. The "Long Drives" that had created cowboy culture were rendered obsolete with the invention of barbed wire and the expansion of the railroads to shipping points along the range.6

Benton's awareness of the passing of the Old West can be seen on a grand scale in a panel called The Changing West, painted in 1930-31 for his mural cycle America Today in the New School of Social Research in New York City (the mural is now owned by the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the U.S., New York). In the upper left corner we see the Old West of the six-gun, range-roving cowboy of the "Long Drive." There is a windmill, symbol of the plains, and the false-fronted building of a small western town. The Old West, a shrinking fraction of the available space of the picture, is being pushed aside by the advent of technology— airplanes, land surveyors, oil rigs, welders, and turbines. The two worlds are separated by a characteristic black column of smoke that is, as Karal Ann Marling has observed, a recurring motif in Benton's work from about 1928 to 1936, one that consistently marks "the pictorial spot where time and space collide and fuse.”7 Cattle Loading shows the same Western motifs—cowboys and longhorns, windmill and water tank—but the huge sooty puff of smoke signals a "machine in the garden" as the train approaches the station.8 The phallic grain elevator, symbol of the fertile plains, dominates the center of the composition, offering the only other significant vertical thrust to an otherwise tranquil, horizontal design. The small windmill on the left is balanced on the right by the ominous appearance of a lone power pole with no wires attached.9 "Where industry has sunk its steel into the plains country as in the Panhandle of Texas," writes Benton, "there is a change in the character of the people.”10 The confrontation between the symbolic frontier past and the burgeoning industrial present provides the pivotal tension in this painting.

In formal terms, the soft-focus realism of Cattle Loading and the other paintings from 1928-29 shows a marked departure from the derivative Cubism of the American Historical Epic without approaching the mature style of Benton's murals of the early 1930s. The painting is closely related to one of Benton's most important "Regionalist" pictures, Boomtown, based on sketches of Borger, Texas. This group of site-specific paintings of 1928-29 was the first manifestation of the sensibility that would be dubbed "Regionalist" by Time magazine (with Benton on the cover) in December of 1934, and that would become a dominant mode of expression in American art of the 1930s.11

M. Sue Kendall, Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 326-27


1. The most important source of information about Benton's artistic travels (his walking tour through the Ozarks in 1926 and his cross-country tour of 1928) can be found in his anecdotal autobiography, An Artist in America, 1st ed. (New York: Robert M. McBride & Co., 1937); 2nd ed., rev. (Kansas City and New York: University of Kansas City Press and Twayne Publishers, 1951); 3rd ed., rev. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, I968). Karal Ann Marling gives an account of Benton's trip to Borger, Texas, in "Thomas Hart Benton's Boomtown: Regionalism Redefined," in Prospects: The Annual of American Cultural Studies 6 (1981), pp. 73-137. The chronology of the two trips, which are conflated in Benton's autobiography, is deciphered in Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton: Drawing from Life (Seattle and New York: Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, and Abbeville Press, 1990), pp. 107-24.

2. Benton, An Artist in America, 3rd ed., rev., pp. 76-77.

3. Thomas Hart Benton, “American Regionalism: A Personal History of the Movement,” University of Kansas City Review 18 (Autumn 1951), p. 42. The essay is reprinted in Benton, An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography (Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 1969), pp. 145-92. Many of the panels of the American Historical Epic are now in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.

4. See, for example, Louisiana Rice Threshers (The Brooklyn Museum, New York), Cotton Pickers (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and Cotton Loading (private collection), illustrated in Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), p. 144. Benton's view of history during this period is analyzed by Erika Doss in Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism: From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 50-57.

5. See Frederick Jackson Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," [American Historical Association] Annual Report for 1893 (Washington, D.C., 1894), pp. 199-227. Benton recalls that he discovered Turner's famous essay in "about 1927 or 1928"; see Benton, An American in Art, p. 149.

6. Barbed wire was patented in 1874; for its dramatic effect on the American West, see J. Evetts Haley, "And Then Came Barbed Wire to Change History's Course," Cattleman 13 (March 1927), pp. 78-80; for a contemporary Texan's perspective on the distinctive range-cattle civilization of the western plains, see Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1931).

7. See Marling, p. 84.

8. See Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, I964).

9. The Addison Gallery's collection includes two preliminary sketches for Cattle Loading, West Texas. The power pole is missing in the ink and crayon sketch, but is present in the oil sketch.

10. The quote is from Benton, An Artist in America, p. 201. Benton is careful to specify in the title of this painting that the event took place in West Texas, not merely in Texas; later on p. 201 he discusses the regional differences between the eastern and western sections of Texas. Benton considered himself to be "half Texan myself”; his mother came from Waxahachie, Texas, and
Benton recalls that he "knew the country thereabouts quite well as a boy"; quoted in Creekmore Fath, ed., The Lithographs of Thomas Hart Benton (1969; rev. ed., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979), p. 5.

11. For an analysis of Benton's journey into Regionalism, see Marling, "Thomas Hart Benton's Boomtown." For the christening of the Regionalist movement in American art, see "U.S. Scene," Time 24 (24 December 1934), pp. 24-27.

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