The Kentuckian

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The Kentuckian

United States, 1954
Paintings
Oil on canvas
76 1/8 x 60 6/16 in. (193.4 x 153.4 cm)
Gift of Burt Lancaster (M.77.115)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

In 1953 the motion-picture company Norma Productions hired Benton to execute a painting to be used for publicity purposes for the movie The Kentuckian, starring Burt Lancaster....
In 1953 the motion-picture company Norma Productions hired Benton to execute a painting to be used for publicity purposes for the movie The Kentuckian, starring Burt Lancaster. Lancaster and Harold Hecht, producers of the motion picture, admired Benton’s art, and it was upon their initiative that Benton received the commission. Except for its showing at the movie’s premiere in Washington, D.C., the canvas was never exhibited until its donation to the museum. It was, however, reproduced on labels for bottles of Beam’s Choice whiskey. As early as the 1910s Benton had painted portraits and historical pieces for the budding motion-picture industry, which was then based in Fort Lee, New Jersey. In 1937 Benton was sent by Life magazine to paint Hollywood, 1937 (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo.), perhaps his best-known work related to the industry. He visited the movie capital many times over the next decades and was often commissioned by the studios to create works used as advertisements, such as lithographs for The Grapes of Wrath and a painting for The Long Voyage Home. In 1946 he came to Hollywood to work with Walt Disney. To capture the essence of The Kentuckian, Benton read the script and in the autumn of 1953 spent several days on location in Rockport, Indiana, watching the filming. The movie features a backwoodsman and his son who confront civilization in the form of a frontier village. Benton chose to epitomize the movie’s theme with the image of the backwoodsman, Big Eli Wakesfield, played by Burt Lancaster, and his son Little Eli, played by Donald MacDonald, just before they see the town for the first time. The American West and the progress of civilization were of special interest to Benton, who had portrayed these themes in his early murals. In this painting the Kentuckian becomes the archetypal frontiersman leading his family to the golden land in the West. The Kentuckian heads toward the unseen village, located somewhere ahead in a sunny valley. He strides forward, high on a hill against a cloudfilled sky. This baroque compositional device, echoed by the diagonal positions of the boy and the dog, emphasizes the Kentuckian’s dynamic vitality. Although the painting’s large size may have been determined by the commission, the heroic presentation was surely Benton’s idea, for many of his late easel paintings are more tightly focused around a single large figure than were his early mural scenes. Also typical of Benton’s later paintings is his portrayal of the forms in strong colors with crisp outlines and an undulating plasticity. Benton’s methodical working procedure was always laborious, and for The Kentuckian he created numerous drawings, including a cubist, diagrammatic study; preparatory oils; and a clay model of the boy’s figure. The full-length composition was painted in Benton’s Kansas City studio.
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About The Era

Four years after the stock market crash of 1929, which triggered the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated the New Deal, a program of domestic reform meant to revive the econ...
Four years after the stock market crash of 1929, which triggered the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated the New Deal, a program of domestic reform meant to revive the economy and alleviate the problem of mass unemployment. Toward these ends, he established various new federal agencies, putting many more people to work to do the increased business of government. Thousands of artists were employed, most through the largest program, the Works Progress Administration. Although the government did not dictate the type of art that was to be produced, it did encourage the use of a representational style and American themes. As a result, most of the art created in the decade prior to World War II was humanistic in orientation.
Artists, writers, and philosophers of the period became obsessed with the social relevance of art. Although a small group of American artists did attack the societal ills of the nation (housing shortages, unemployment) and of the world in general (the rise of fascism and militarism), most adopted a more pragmatic and even positive attitude. American scene painters captured busy city dwellers on streets, in buses, at work, and at play. Occasionally artists infused an element of humor into the pathos of everyday existence, even in scenes that allude to the political disasters of the day. Regionalists were particularly fond of idealizing the past and aggrandizing the present accomplishments of the country. In fact, the myth of America as a country where everyone lives a pastoral, carefree existence emerged with new vigor in the art of the 1930s.
The diversity of the people also emerged as a strong current of social realism. Artists who were accustomed to working in their studios now looked beyond their immediate circles for models. Individuals of various races, professions, or creeds inspired some of the most moving portraits of the century and demonstrated the soul of the people.
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Bibliography

  • About the Era.
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art Members' Calendar 1990.  vol. 27-28, no. 12-1 (December, 1989-January, 1991).
  • Fort, Ilene Susan and Michael Quick.  American Art:  a Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection.  Los Angeles:  Museum Associates, 1991.