Thomas Hart Benton was born and raised less than an hour’s drive from the Crystal Bridges site, in Neosho, MO in 1889. Benton, the son of a lawyer and congressman and great-nephew of a prominent senator, left Neosho at the age of 17 to study art in Chicago and then Paris before serving in the Navy during WWI. By 1930, Benton was known as a well-established “Regionalist” artist in New York. Benton rejected the themes of modernism (while keeping a sort of modern aesthetic) and hoped to capture American life as he saw it, which led to dismissal from many art critics of the time. “We came in the popular mind to represent a home-grown, grass-roots artistry which damned ‘furrin’ influence and which knew nothing about and cared nothing for the traditions of art as cultivated city snobs, dudes, and aesthetes knew them,” Benton recalled in his autobiography. “Regionalist we became and the victims thereby of a lot of odd and inaccurate definitions which the word suggested…I [became] just an Ozark hillbilly. We accepted our roles.”
Benton’s popularity grew in the midst of the Great Depression. His anti-urban, agrarian, blue collar themes captured Americans laboring through the country’s predicament. Benton traveled throughout the American South and Midwest, sketching and painting residents working in fields, mines, and factories. He was the first significant painter to roam the country during the Depression. His paintings became social and political statements. Plowing It Under (aka Ploughing It Under) is no exception.
Benton completed two versions, a sketch and a painting, of Plowing It Under in 1934. It is one of Benton’s most modest works but it carries the rolling dynamism that epitomizes his paintings. Both the sketch and the painting show a black sharecropper with a mule plowing a field in South Carolina. It easily could be seen as a symbol of the Old South, a black man preparing the field for planting for his owner or land lord in the springtime sun. But Benton’s sharecropper is plowing an already planted field, the green leaves meeting the steel blade. In 1933, legislation (as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal) was passed that hoped to raise the price of agricultural goods by reducing farm acreage and output in order to limit supply. Overproduction, they figured, led to smaller profits for farmers. Production had to be reduced. By the time the law was passed, spring crops had already been planted. So, the government plowed under 10.4 million acres of already-planted cotton (6.2 million pigs and 220,000 sows were processed for fertilizer). This decision was understandably controversial, but thousands of farmers plowed under their own crops hoping to steer the country in a better direction (and to receive government incentives). Benton created Plowing It Under in support of the plan. As a believer in New Deal ideals, Benton hoped that the government programs would end the antiquated agricultural system of the South. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers worked under the yoke of the planter class, who decided on what and how much to produce. The painting represents a New South changing under desperate conditions for a better future. It is a portrait of struggle and hope.
Benton’s lithograph of Plowing It Under was sold by Associated American Artists who began selling cheap fine-art prints to middle-class buyers after the Depression destroyed the art business. In 1934, several well-known artists agreed to create works for the program for $200 per edition. The lithographs were sold for only $5 apiece at fifty department stores. Plowing It Under sold out almost immediately. Benton’s popularity and financial situation improved dramatically following 1934. Time called him the “most virile of U. S. painters of the U.S. Scene.” The popularity of Regionalism bolstered the AAA’s success and helped to revive the American art world.
Plowing It Under remained in Benton’s estate following his death in 1975. Alice Walton purchased the painting in 2008. “Telling the story – especially stories that haven’t been told or have been forgotten – is one of our primary goals,” Walton said after the purchase. “It is the intention of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art to build meaningful connections between art and life and to make sense of the forces that define the American experience. This painting by Benton certainly does just that and, in fact, enlightens and reminds us of another era of economic uncertainty in our history.”
J. Richard Gruber, Thomas Hart Benton and the American South
Erika Doss, Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism: From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism