Shocking Corn, 1945
Oil on canvas
23½ x 29½ inches
Katherine G. Ordway Purchase Fund, 88.02.01
©T. H. Benton and R. P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Essay by Jodi Richert
University of Minnesota Duluth, Class of 2010
Born in Neosho, Missouri, in 1889, Thomas Hart Benton considered himself “an artist for the people.” Often called the leader of American Scene painting and of regionalism, his work reflects the ideology of a grassroots America in which man worked the land, before machines became prevalent. By depicting a nostalgic rural America, Benton showed his preference for a simpler time before such devastating events as the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and World War II.
The regionalists waged an ideological war between urban and rural lifestyles. More fascinated with art inspired by urbanism, critics often condemned their work for lacking sophistication, or for being provincial and naïve. However, looking at Benton’s art through the lens of regionalism, it becomes evident that he used his subject matter to show a longing for a lost America. Benton believed that he was showing America in her entirety, without limiting himself geographically or chronologically to a specific American region. The regionalist’s goal was to create an authentic American art form that reflected the roots of America and the common people. No longer should art be just for the elite, but, as Benton believed, “art ought to be argued in the language of the streets.” This desire to capture a universal America led critics to call his work old-fashioned, naïve in its optimism, and out of touch with the problems of modern America.
Benton studied in Paris at the Académie Julian from 1908 to 1911. Like his contemporaries, he was influenced by the modernist movements in Europe, experimenting with cubism, fauvism and synchromism, an early form of colored abstract painting practiced by the American artists Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Morgen Russell. After his return to America in 1911, Benton went to New York and then joined the Navy in Norfolk, Virginia, where he discovered the world of machinery and men and their relationship to the land. These experiences allowed him to form an ideology that nostalgically celebrated pre-industrial America, which he believed captured the spirit of the people. This led him to self-consciously shift away from modernist abstract movements, keeping only those elements that he found critical to his depiction of rural life, such as lyricism, movement, and color harmony.
Shocking Corn reflects the ideals of regionalism by celebrating the hard work of the American people. By the 1930s Benton’s work focused on themes of planting and harvesting, reflecting the grassroots values of the American public. Echoing the widespread themes of the worker and the closeness of humanity to the land, Benton tells a tumultuous tale of man trying to conquer nature. The turbulence of the 1930s and early 1940s shook America to its core, and people struggled to redefine themselves in a new, modern world. Benton’s landscapes illustrate this sentiment by way of tangible movement, creating a physically human response to the land.
In Shocking Corn , three corn stalks with a powerfully grounded energy seem to be bursting forth from the tilled ground with an alarming life-force of their own. These stalks overwhelm the farmers in the center of the image, making them completely subservient to the land in which they labor. Benton consciously muted the red and blue tones of the workers’ clothing, while making the yellows, golds and ochres of the corn more vibrant, reinforcing the idea of nature’s power over man. The landscape, with its tactile and thick brush strokes, adds a lively vitality and vigor to the scene as the laborers struggle with the crops. This battle is most clearly seen in Benton’s depiction of the farmer with the white shirt who hunches over the corn shocks. The animated corn stalks, in the foreground, their roots mimicking tiny bird’s feet, seem to be playfully fleeing from the farmers’ inevitable repossession of the land. Benton used this painting as a metaphor for America and its people, as they reclaimed and redefined their culture to fit into a post-Great Depression, post-Dust Bowl and post-World War II modern world.
Benton’s art captures a lifestyle that virtually disappeared during the Great Depression and World War II, and thus should be celebrated for its greatest legacy: the documentation of the lives and histories of the American people. As America changed with the times, so did Benton. He created art that would speak to the common person, not the elite. He frequently depicted recognizable faces with identifiable flaws and, because of this practice and his stark realism, did not always find favor with the American public. Throughout Benton’s oeuvre, his goal was always the same: to define a truly American art f orm—whether through style, subject matter, or both.
 Jean Makin, American Life and Lore: Thomas Hart Benton and the Associated American Artists (Tempe: Arizona State University Publication Design Center, 1989), 5.
 Makin, American Life, 4.
 Broun, Thomas Hart Benton, 72.
 To “shock” corn means to make upright piles of corn stalks for drying.