Monday, December 13, 2021

Thomas Hart Benton's "City Activities with Dancehall" and More

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Wikipedia entry here, is classed as a Regionalist artist.   Regionalists were basically a small group of American painters active in the 1930s.  Their typical subject matter was rural activities.  In the case of today's subject, the setting is New York City, but the focus is on working class people.

"City Activities with Dancehall" was one of a 1930-31 set of murals with the general title "America Today" commissioned for architect Joseph Urban's The New School for Social Research building in the Greenwich Village neighborhood.  The murals were later restored and moved to an insurance company's building, finally being donated to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they are on view.

It's the nature of murals that they be visually "busy" -- lots of details -- and that is true for the America Today set.  In addition, Benton's style featured people in twisted, exaggerated poses, adding to the visual interest, though seeming cartoon-like to some observers.

Being strongly interested in the 1920s and 1930s decades, I was pleased to see the Met's display the last time I visited New York.

The Gallery below deals with "City Activities with Dancehall" along with some details from "City Activities with Subway."


City Activities with Dancehall
The entire mural.

View of most of the left side.  Wall Street, a Depression-era speakeasy/dancehall and a movie theatre are some of the subjects.

View of most of the right side.  The woman in red at the far left is Benton's wife.  Benton himself is at the far right wearing a green shirt.

Slightly wider view.

This woman is Elizabeth England, later the wife of Charles Pollock, Jackson Pollock's older brother.  The Pollock brothers studied under Benton.  She also appears in the movie audience wearing a red hat.

Benton claimed that many of the people depicted were based on portrait sketches he had made for this project and in preceding years.  This one is of Alvin Johnson who was a founder of The New School.  On the mural he is shown by Benton, clinking glasses in a casual toast to the project.

"City Activities with Subway" detail

The man seated wearing a light blue suit is Max Eastman, well known in New York intellectual circles.

This is Peggy Reynolds, shown standing holding a subway car strap.  Benton used her head from the drawing, but the rest of the figure  was from another sketch.  She was a burlesque star at the time.

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