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A Thomas Hart Benton for the MMFA

Benton.BlogThursday, May 21, 2015 marked a significant milestone in the history of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and its collection.  At around 10:30 that morning, the Museum purchased Ozark Autumn, 1949, by the Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889–1975) for its American paintings collection. It is the first painting by one of the three major American Regionalist painters—Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood—to enter the collection.   Acquiring a painting by one of the artists from this particular school of American art was long considered an important goal for our MMFA collection because the Museum owns a significant number of works by Southern Regionalist painters who were contemporaries of Benton and the others. J. Kelly Fitzpatrick and his students formed a “mini-Regionalist” cohort here in the heart of Alabama, and these works were the foundation of the MMFA collection that began in 1930.
Benton.Blog.4Thomas Hart Benton was a controversial and influential character in both the art and social worlds in early and mid-twentieth century America.  After study and the practice of art in Paris and New York, Benton’s outspokenness, writings, and large-scale public mural projects made him a voice for national political and art issues in Depression-era America.  Early in his career he worked for a time as a modernist painter, but he eventually abandoned that style to pursue one rooted in traditional European art, creating murals with distinctly “American” themes that resonated with the public.  He is best known for his mural cycles such as America Today (now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), and his massive composition for the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. His association with Wood and Curry, along with a December 1934, Time magazine cover story about Benton’s work, allowed him to settle into his permanently defined role as a Regionalist painter. (Above: Registrar Pamela Bransford and MMFA Consulting Conservator Larry Shutts examine the Museum’s latest acquisition.)
The acquisition of this critical work was made possible only by the amazing legacy of Ida Belle Young, who bequeathed the Museum funds for the purchase of “traditional American art” upon her death in 2004. However having the resources for a purchase was only one factor in acquiring the appropriate work.  The staff made a concerted effort for more than seven years to locate “the right Benton” before Ozark Autumn became available.  This work possessed two attributes that were considered critical—as a larger scale work in oil and tempera it could be put on long-term view with our other important American paintings (unlike a work on paper which is subject to damage over time from exposure to light), and the subject was an agrarian one depicting a corn harvesting scene.  Since many of our Southern Regionalist works depict the rural South, it was important to us that our Benton reflect that same agrarian tradition.
And yet a second exciting day dawned on August 31, when we finally unveiled this outstanding work of art for our MMFA Board of Trustees. The event, held in the Museum’s Rotunda at 5:30 P.M., celebrated the support of the Board, the generosity of Ida Belle Young, and the City of Montgomery’s ongoing belief in our mission to the community.Benton.Blog.3  The painting was given a very warm and hearty welcome, accompanied by a toast to the memory of Ida Belle Young, whose gift in the form of the Ida Belle Young Art Acquisition Fund had made its acquisition possible.(Right: Acquisition Committee Chairman Winnie Stakely and MMFA President of the Board of Trustees Roger Spain unveil Ozark Autumn)
For any collecting museum the addition of a truly major work of art is a rare event, and one that contributes to the ongoing vitality of the institution.  It takes a concerted team effort to achieve the Museum’s mission “to collect, preserve, exhibit and interpret art of the highest quality.” This acquisition of Ozark Autumn, and the many people that worked to get it to Montgomery, is a testament to what that mission statement is really all about.Benton.Blog.2

Margaret Lynne Ausfeld
Curator of Art