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Thomas Hart Benton: Train Wrecks and Hillbilly Songs
June 9 - September 2, 2007
(above: Image of the gallery containing the exhibition. To the left is Thomas Hart Benton, American, 1889-1975, Engineer's Dream, 1931. oil on canvas, Signed: lower left, 29 7/8 x 41 3/4 inches (75.9 cm x 106 cm). Eugenia Buxton Whitnel Funds 75.1. To the right is Thomas Hart Benton, American, 1889-1975, Wreck of the Ole '97, 1943, egg tempera on gessoed masonite, 20 x 25 inches, signed and dated lower left. Gift of the Benwood Foundation.)
The Brooks Museum of Art is hosting Thomas Hart Benton: Train Wrecks and Hillbilly Songs from June 9 to September 2, 2007. This exhibition unites two major train paintings from Tennessee collections by Thomas Hart Benton: the Brooks Museum's Engineer's Dream and the Hunter Museum of American Art's Wreck of the Ole '97. Both paintings are based on folk songs, and this exhibition places them within the context of the songs and railroad legends that inspired them.
An avid collector of folk music, Benton, like many others, felt it was an important aspect of traditional American life. And what could be more American than the locomotive? Trains fascinated Benton and he made them the subjects of numerous paintings and prints. "My first pictures were of railroad trains," Benton wrote, "Engines were the most impressive things that came into my childhood. [They] gave me a feeling of stupendous drama, which I have not lost to this day."
Benton helped to form the naturalistic and representational style of work, known today as Regionalism, by depicting themes that were common to the rural Mid-West. He and others strove to create an American art that celebrated the people, history, and folklore of our country. The Regionalists created nostalgic and provoking works whose subject matter is accessible to the everyday viewer.
This exhibition is paired with an ancillary show entitled, "All Aboard!" that includes train images by other artists from the Brooks, the Hunter Museum, and a private collection. Train Wrecks and Hillbilly Songs was curated by the Brooks Museum's Karleen Gardner, the Curator of Education, in collaboration with Ellen Simak, Chief Curator at the Hunter Museum of American Art.
Wall text from the exhibition
My first pictures were of railroad trains. Engines were the most impressive things that came into my childhood. To go down to the depot and see them come in, belching black smoke with their big headlights shining and their bells ringing and their pistons clanking, gave me a feeling of stupendous drama, which I have not lost to this day.
-- Thomas Hart Benton
This exhibition unites two major train paintings in Tennessee collections by Thomas Hart Benton: the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art's Engineer's Dream and the Hunter Museum of American Art's Wreck of the Ole '97. Both paintings are based on folk songs, and this exhibition places them within the context of the songs and railroad legends that inspired them.
An avid collector of folk music, Benton, like many others, felt it was an important aspect of traditional American life. And what could be more American than the locomotive? Trains played a central role in the opening and expansion of the West. They continue to be a vital force in the American transportation system and still fire the American imagination today. Trains fascinated Benton and he made them the subjects of numerous paintings and prints.
Depicting themes that were common to the rural Mid-West, Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood, formed the Regionalist movement. They strove to create an American art that celebrated the people, history, and folklore of our country.
The railroad is embedded in the history of the United States and has played an important role in the development of American culture. Train travel changed perceptions of time, space, and distance, opening channels for commerce, travel, and the dissemination of information. Rail tracks became part of the American landscape, defining the settlement of the middle and western United States, and ultimately tying the country together.
With their speed, billowing trails of smoke and steam, and shrill whistles, trains have fascinated and inspired American song writers, authors, and visual artists. In their frontal, almost portrait-like views of train engines, both Malcolm Childers (b. 1945) and Robert Weaver (b.1935) create monumental images that capture the literal power of the locomotive. Currier and Ives' (active 1857-1907) and Ira Moscowitz's works (1912-1975) illustrate the ubiquitous rail tracks that traverse the American countryside. The prints of James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and Louis Lozowick (1892-1973) comment on the railroad's industrial and economic impact on both urban and rural areas. According to the National Railroad Museum, almost every city and small town in the country was serviced by rail by 1945, and almost no American lived beyond the sound of a locomotive's whistle.
The Wreck of Train 97
The Old 97 was an actual train. It was a mail train that ran on the Southern line from Washington D.C. to Danville, Virginia along the Blue Ridge. Mail trains captured the public's imagination because they dramatically sped through a station to pick up mail bags that were hung from hooks on the edge of the track. These trains also had a surprising number of wrecks (9355 from 1876-1905!) due to the engineer's determination to deliver mail on time.
When Train 97 left Monroe, Virginia, on September 27, 1903, it was already an hour late because of delays further on up the line. Engineer Steve Broady was unfamiliar with the route, yet he was determined to make up time. Eyewitnesses claimed that he was going 90 miles an hour when he hit the curve leading to the Stillhouse Trestle. The train lost a flange on the wheel, and plunged 75 feet off the trestle into the ravine below.
Broady was killed as were some other railway workers, though, amazingly, there were survivors.
The Song The Wreck of the Old 97
Why did the Wreck of the Old 97 become such a popular song? Katie Letcher Lyle in Scalded to Death by the Steam: The True Stories of Railroad Disasters and the Ballads That Were Written About Them suggests three reasons. The wreck received national publicity so was very well known. The accident happened in Appalachia, "a part of the world with a tradition of keeping tragedy alive in song." Lastly, the story of the Wreck of the Old 97 was set to a well known tune, The Ship that Never Return'd, which made it "singable" and memorable.
The ballad took poetic license with the actual events of the wreck, and details of the wreck varied from song to song. Certainly the songs cannot be taken as a factual report of the event. However, they did carry an emotional truth testifying to America's love of trains and our fascination with disastrous events.
Numerous versions of the song were written, and many artists recorded it. Listen to the version recorded by hillbilly singer Henry Whitter in 1923 on the audio kiosk in this gallery. Lyrics for the song as sung by Vernon Dalhart are also available in this gallery.
Benton and the Wreck of the Old 97
Benton's version of the wreck differed in several ways from the song and the disaster itself. For example, he changed the locale from a trestle in the mountains of Virginia to the farmland of his beloved Midwest.
He also created a confrontation between a horse and wagon and the train. Certainly, this could simply add a bit of drama to the scene. But it might have deeper significance. Might it suggest a confrontation between an older way of life (the wagon) and progress (the train)?
By adding a young woman to the scene, he heightens the drama with a damsel in distress, an image found throughout American folk tales Likewise, Benton's painting style is particularly well suited to this action-packed scene as even the plants and the land itself seem to sway with the tension of the moment.
After completing the mural America Today (1930) for The New School for Social Research in New York, Benton, both physically and mentally exhausted, fell into an emotional slump. For weeks he was unable to paint, so to amuse himself, he took up the harmonica. For a time, the instrument interested him more than painting. During that period, he focused his energies on practicing children's melodies and elementary folk songs, eventually becoming a talented harmonica player.
Consequently, he developed an interest in American folk and country music and began to make paintings based on the lyrics of songs. Benton's affinity for both folk ballads and trains is evident in Engineer's Dream, which was inspired by a song of the same name written by Carson Robison, America's first cowboy radio singer. Unlike Wreck of the Ole '97, the songwriter invented the crash in Engineer's Dream. The tune recounts a train wreck through a dream, which turns into a premonition of disaster. The sleeping man's son is a train engineer racing through a stormy night to arrive on time when his train comes to a bridge that has washed out. The closing refrain mournfully states, "And then through the night came a message and it told him his dream had been true. His brave son had gone to his maker along with the rest of the crew."
Benton's fascination with trains began in his boyhood. Throughout his life, in a variety of media, the artist accurately rendered individual types of trains and their working mechanisms. In this painting, he depicts an old-fashioned locomotive, and visibly contrasts the white steam emerging from the whistle with the coal smoke coming from the funnel.
The canvas is divided diagonally into two sections. Separating a scene into sections echoes a device that Benton used in his murals to organize several events within one frame. In the lower right, the engineer's father dreams of the upcoming disaster. Above him, the monstrous train roars off the tracks. Unsuccessfully attempting to prevent the calamity, a man waves a warning flag while a frantic figure jumps from the train. The cruciform shape of the telephone pole adds to the drama of the event.
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