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New Acquisition: Cotton Pickers


The Art Institute is proud to announce the recent acquisition of Thomas Hart Benton’s Cotton Pickers. Best known for his sinuous lines and frank treatment of rural subjects, the Missouri-born Benton is considered a critical figure in the history of American art for his mediating role between American Regionalism and the emerging forces of abstraction and modernism. He was deeply influenced by the work of the Old Masters , but also energized by modern art, including that by Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Paul Signac. In a very rare combination for the time, his work was both formally and politically progressive, as can be seen in Cotton Pickers, which brought into focus the bleak social and economic landscape of the South in the early 20th century in an inventive visual idiom.

Cotton Pickers is based on notes of a trip he made through the South in the early 1900s. Rendered on a relatively large scale, the painting shows the dignity of African American cotton pickers enduring backbreaking labor and southern summer heat. As the workers pick the cotton by hand, to be collected by the horse-drawn wagon in the background, one woman offers another a drink of water from a pail. A makeshift lean-to protects a sleeping child from the relentless sun. Benton renders the unforgiving Georgia clay, the dry fields, and the contorted bodies of the workers in a unified composition, the delicacy of which almost belies the progressive agenda of the work. Cotton Pickers , one of a limited number of large paintings created by Benton, will be shown alongside Grant Wood’s American Gothic and John Steuart Curry’s Hogs and Rattlesnakes at the Art Institute and will complete an important chapter in the museum’s representation of American Regionalism.

Image Credit: Thomas Hart Benton. Cotton Pickers, 1945. Prior bequest of Alexander Stewart; Centennial Major Acquisitions Income and Wesley M. Dixon Jr. funds; Roger and J. Peter McCormick Endowments; prior acquisition of the George F. Harding Collection and Cyrus H. McCormick Fund; Quinn E. Delaney, American Art Sales Proceeds, Alyce and Edwin DeCosta and Walter E. Heller Foundation, and Goodman funds; prior bequest of Arthur Rubloff; Estate of Walter Aitken; Ada Turnbull Hertle and Mary and Leigh Block Endowment funds; prior acquisition of Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize; Marian and Samuel Klasstorner and Laura T. Magnuson Acquisition funds; prior acquisition of Friends of American Art Collection; Wirt D. Walker Trust; Jay W. McGreevy Endowment; Cyrus Hall McCormick Fund; Samuel A. Marx Purchase Fund for Major Acquisitions; Maurice D. Galleher Endowment; Alfred and May Tiefenbronner Memorial, Dr. Julian Archie, Gladys N. Anderson, and Simeon B. Williams funds; Capital Campaign General Acquisitions Endowment, and Benjamin Argile Memorial Fund.