Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton, “Achelous and Hercules”, Detail, Egg Tempera and Oil on Canvas on Board, 1947

Achelous and Hercules is displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  The painting was executed in egg tempera and oil on canvas, and affixed to a plywood panel measuring 62⅞ by 264⅛ inches.

The central figure is the muscular, shirtless “Hercules” grappling with the horns of the bull. A second man, also wearing bluejeans and no shirt, stands by the bull’s haunch and holds the end of a rope that swirls into another man’s hand in the foreground, where the work of woodchopping has been interrupted. The bull’s tail points into the surging, wavelike woods that rise out of the distance; a barn and silo emerge from the woods to the right. The undulating line of the rope and tail visually connect the woodlands and the timber produced from it.

Achelous and Hercules was painted for display at Harzfeld’s department store in Kansas City. The store specialized in ready to wear clothing for women, and Benton later acknowledged that it was strange to see his work “in an atmosphere of silk nighties, pink slips and perfume.” It was his first mural commission since his historical murals for the Missouri State Capital ten years before.

In light of controversies over that project, Benton sought reassurance that Harzfeld’s corporate president, Lester Siegel, would refrain from trying to exercise artistic control. Siegel in turn asked that Benton observe a certain degree of decorum. After the store closed in 1984, its parent company Allied Stores Corporation made a gift of it to the Smithsonian through the institution’s Collections Acquisition Program.

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