Lot 46

Thomas Hart Benton "Study for The Flight of the Thielens" Graphite (1938)

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Thomas Hart Benton

(Missouri, 1889-1975)

Study for The Flight of the Thielens, 1938

Graphite on paper

14 1/2" x 10"


Benton scholar Dr. Henry Adams offered commentary on the images: "Benedict Thielen, a writer for The New Yorker, Holiday, and other magazines, had built a house on a narrow barrier beach that separated Stonewall Pond on Martha’s Vineyard from the Atlantic Ocean. He shared it with his wife, the well-known painter Virginia Beresford. In September of 1938, a hurricane struck the Vineyard without warning while the Thielens were having afternoon tea. The winds suddenly changed from calm to a violent gale, but the Thielens did not realize their danger until rocks started to smash through the windows. With their Jamaican maid, Lucy, they ran towards the land just as a huge wave from the sea rolled up, engulfing the barrier beach.


"Thielen had been holding Lucy’s hand, but the force of the wave separated them. Unable to rescue her, he struggled to his wife, and they made their way through the dirty yellow water to the shore. Looking back through the spray, they saw their house floating lopsided in the water. They then made their way through a cow pasture to South Road, where they found Thomas Hart Benton, who had gone to look for them. Lucy had disappeared: they later learned that she had drowned.


"Benton made a sketch of the scene right away, and this evolved into one of his most remarkable works, The Flight of the Thielens [Baigell 101], 1938, which shows the maid Lucy being swept away, while Thielen desperately reaches for her.


"These two drawings are early figure studies for this notable painting. The sketch at the top of #110 is an early study for Thielen: the sketch in the middle of #110 is an early study for Lucy, raising her arms in helpless despair. At the bottom of #110, he sketched [a study for Beresford], paying less attention to the costume and more to make the gesture as expressive as possible. He then reworked this idea in #110a, accentuating [Beresford's] bony arm as well as the anguished gesture of the hands.


"While executed just after Jackson Pollock had ceased to work closely with Benton, Flight of the Thielens has an abstract energy that brings to mind Pollock’s work, and suggests what Pollock took away from his study with Benton. When Benton held a retrospective show of his work at the Graham Gallery, the painting was singled out for special commentary by the art historian Henry La Farge: “The Regionalist movement had, of course, many offshoots, but rarely was it capable of reaching the heights of drama and passion that are found in… Flight of the Thielens…. a cosmic image of violence and fury. The abstract structure in its swirling design harks back, like many Benton paintings, to the dynamic tension and chiaroscuro of sixteenth-century Mannerism.”


Matted to 24" x 18", with an additional study [referred to in Dr. Adams' commentary as "#110a"] to the reverse of the same sheet, also matted with a window measuring 14 1/2" x 10".


Good condition. Some horizontal cockling halfway down the sheet. A few spots of stain reduction toward the left, with minor discoloration along the left edge.

Overall Dimensions
Height: 24.00 in
Width: 18.00 in
Depth: 0.50 in

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Acquired by Vincent and Leah Campanella directly from Thomas and Rita Benton over the course of their 25 year friendship. A portion of the collection was given to the Campanellas by Rita in 1975 as compensation for Vincent completing "The Sources of Country Music," the mural left unfinished when Tom passed away in 1975. Vincent Campanella was later prominently featured in the Ken Burns documentary Thomas Hart Benton (1988). In 2001, the Campanella family sold the collection to the current owner, a private Kansas City collector.

Benton scholar and author, Dr. Henry Adams, has authenticated the entire collection in person. You can find his essay documenting the 25 year tumultuous friendship of Vincent and Thomas and the origins of the collection at Circle-Auction.com. A copy of his essay will be provided to all winning bidders.