By Wally Kennedy
BENTONVILLE, Ark. —
“Tobacco Sorters,” a 1942-1944 painting by Missouri native Thomas Hart Benton, has been acquired and is on display in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
This is the fourth and largest painting by Benton to be acquired by the museum, according to Kevin Murphy, Crystal Bridges curator of American art.
“A larger work than the other Bentons we have, this painting filled a niche in our early 20th-century area,” Murphy said. “It had been in a private collection of a Kansas City family. It was important to the family that it be shared with a larger audience.”
The image depicts a weathered tobacco farmer teaching a young girl about tobacco leaves on a family farm. Light filters through a golden tobacco leaf to silhouette the hand of the child. It also features the trademark characteristics of a Benton sky.
“This is intergenerational learning in that he is teaching the young girl about the family business and how to grade tobacco leaves,” Murphy said.
“Tobacco Sorters” originally was commissioned by the American Tobacco Co., which wanted to connect its consumers to the farmers who grew its product. But the owner was not impressed with Benton’s work. He thought the girl was too small and that viewers might get the impression that tobacco had stunted the girl’s growth.
Murphy said Benton thought the piece was “one of his best paintings, and he tried to persuade American Tobacco to use it. The president of the company told Benton that if he liked the painting so much, he should buy it back. That’s what Benton did (for $3,000). He then sold it to friends in Kansas City.”
Murphy said it took a year for the museum to acquire the work. It was stored in a secure and temperature-controlled warehouse in Kansas City.