PALM BEACH — When the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Thomas Hart Benton's painting Roasting Ears for $3,000 back in 1938, Benton's wife Rita remarked: "Whew, they must have put a beautiful frame around it."
Imagine the "whew" she'd let out now.
The egg tempera and oil painting of an African-American sharecropper tending a paltry field of corn is selling for $4.8 million — you read that right — at the John H. Surovek Gallery in Palm Beach. (Beautiful frame included.)
It's part of an exhibit of 23 Benton paintings and lithographs that gallery director Clay Surovek pulled together over the last few months, asking Benton collectors across the Midwest and East Coast to lend works for the show. When owners learned the soaring prices that a Benton is fetching these days, some agreed to put them up for sale through the gallery.
About half of the works in the exhibit can be yours — if you have between $22,000 to $4.8 million.
If not, this is a rare opportunity to glimpse one of the best American artists of the 20th century, in works that range from 1919 to 1973. Other than a touring museum exhibit of Benton's Hollywood paintings last year, there hasn't been a significant show devoted to the godfather of the Regionalist movement in decades.
An Alabama museum director, a friend of gallery president John Surovek, stopped in the other day and was floored. "He said, 'Oh my god John, I haven't seen this many Benton paintings in one place.' "
That kind of reaction is why Surovek's son Clay wanted to curate the show. He's been obsessed with Benton for years, and describes with undisguised joy the summer day he got to root around in a Kansas City bank vault filled with Benton works. He thinks the painter transcends his time, and appeals to generation after generation.
"He's very relatable," Surovek said. "And he's unmistakably American."
Or Americana. That's the stereotype, anyway. Benton, along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, is the key figure of Regionalism, the American school of painting that focused on realistic portraits of Midwest and Southern life in the '30s and '40s. Benton's best work certainly evokes that hard-times era, as he filled both small canvases and monumental murals with white and black working-class folks struggling to make ends meet.
Benton once wrote that he was drawn to "the Mississippi region, the Ozarks, and the places where I can see lonely plowmen, Cotton pickers, river Boatmen, and ramshackle houses that never were much good to begin with."
But he was much more than that.
Born in 1889 in Neosho, Missouri, Benton traveled the world and painted subjects from Paris to New York, from Martha's Vineyard to Hollywood. The Surovek show highlights the breadth of his passions. Yes, there are plenty of eye-catching portraits of sharecroppers and rivermen and cowhands and railroad workers, but there are also picketing miners, a classical musical quartet, a raucous dance party, and a still life of flowers and houses.
For all the so-called nostalgia of his rural scenes, and his disavowal of Modernist art, there is nothing more avant-garde than a Benton painting. They are marked by rich colors, bursting vitality, heroic stances and undulating horizontal lines that create the illusion of dimensional depth. His subjects practically spring off the canvas. A passionate fan of film, he brought cinematic energy and movement to his paintings.
You can see that in what might be the best Benton on display: 1947's "Photographing The Bull." On one hand, it's a standard rural farm scene, Benton 101, of a man trying to harness a bull while a photographer ducks under a black cloth to capture the scene on camera. But it comes across as a riotous carnival of motion — the barn, sky, clouds, fence, the very ground itself is twitching and writhing.
No wonder that Clay Surovek loves it so much that he has taken pilgrimages to the owner's home to see it. "I've coveted that painting for so long," he admitted.
Born into a political family, Benton was an unapologetic leftist. Viewing his two formidable pictures of striking workers in the show, it's not hard to imagine that he would be out on the Southern Boulevard front lines, painting today's resistance movement against President Donald Trump. The Suroveks don't disagree.
"He was a curmudgeon, irascible," said John Surovek. "He was a cat."
There was another side of Benton, and "Roasting Ears," the most valuable painting in the show, provides a forum for discussing it. In the documentary-like painting, a poor black farmer looking over his pitiful corn bounty seems to illuminate the miseries of the Depression, especially that thin line between successful harvest and survival.
Critics have pointed out racial stereotyping and exaggeration in some Benton portraits of African-Americans, and especially in his pulpy World War II paintings. (He also made disparaging remarks about homosexuals in the museum world.) They say that part of his legacy cannot be ignored.
On the website liveauctioneers.com, there is this counter-argument about Roasting Ears: "Because Benton expressed himself through caricature, and because he was willing to show the appalling poverty in which southern African-Americans lived, he has sometimes been accused of racial bias, a charge he always vehemently insisted was untrue. The controversy about this issue has obscured a central fact — that Benton was the first American artist to provide a record of the life of poor African-Americans in the South, based on first-hand experience and free from plantation stereotypes."
Clay Surovek agreed with this assessment, noting that Benton was painting sharecroppers while other artists of the time were painting children frolicking in fields. "He tried to represent people who didn't have any representation," Surovek said.
How did the Suroveks come to represent a painting that Benton sold directly to the Metropolitan Museum of Art? In a controversial move known as "de-accessioning," the Met sold the painting off to raise money, and then a subsequent owner sold it in a government-forced auction of assets, where it was purchased for $1.8 million last October.
So why did the price jump to $4.8 million a few months later? Clay Surovek believes it was undersold at auction, and he says the Regionalist art movement is experiencing "a pretty significant uptick" in sales that justifies today's more realistic price. And "Roasting Ears" is considered a major work in Benton's most fruitful time period. "The Met provenance is about as good as you can get," he said.
Surovek believes that it will probably be purchased eventually by an art institution. In the meantime, you can see it at the Worth Avenue gallery through at least the end of the month.
Or take it home for a mere $4.8 million.
"I'm thrilled" to have it in the show, Surovek said. "It's a great painting."