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Painter’s Word

Thomas Hart Benton, Marsden Hartley and Ad Reinhardt as Writers


Edyta Frelik

This book adds a new perspective to the study of American art by reclaiming underrated writings of three 20th-century masters, Thomas Hart Benton, Marsden Hartley and Ad Reinhardt. Their rich and diverse literary output was never before studied methodically in and beyond the context of their painting. The book’s first part sets the necessary framework for discussing their texts by outlining the long history of debates about inter-art analogies and rivalries. Through systematic close reading of Benton’s, Hartley’s and Reinhardt’s writings the study reveals novel and unique juxtapositions of visual and verbal elements at work which are present in both their paintings and writings and confirms the existence of a strong link between their painterly and writerly dispositions.
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4. Thomas Hart Benton


Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) was one of America’s most prolific muralists and the leader of a group of artists known as the Regionalists, or the American Scene Painters. Arguing for establishing an indigenous school of contemporary American art, the Regionalists rejected Modernist abstraction and preferred instead to work in a figurative style intended to reach a broad national audience by being accessible to ordinary viewers. Regionalist anecdotal works addressed the particular concerns of the people of rural, mid-western America – their pastimes, entertainments and daily lives. But the call for an “American” school of art was by no means exclusive to the Regionalists. Wanda M. Corn traces the beginnings of “the mid-twentieth-century question ‘What is American in American art’ ” to the theories and practices of the artists gathered around Alfred Stieglitz in New York City and to the support of Europeans such as Marcel Duchamp and Fernand Léger, who envisioned “a new art, distinctively modern and American.”197 Corn notes that in fact the “language of nationalism is inseparable from the history of American art” (GAT, xv) and lists such earlier examples of pursuing American themes and styles as the work of the so-called Hudson River School painters, Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer (both envisioning themselves as American-style Realists and advising young painters against looking for European models of art making for inspiration), and Robert Henri, the leader of the Ashcan school, who encouraged artists to paint the American scene. Linking America to “nature, wilderness, democracy, and...

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