Benton and cotton

A few months ago, I gave a lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago called “Cotton Picking, American Art and Thomas Hart Benton.” The Art Institute recently acquired Cotton Pickers (1945) — his last painting of the subject.

Benton_Cotton Pickers_Field Workers_1945

Cotton Pickers, 1945, Thomas Hart Benton, American, 1889-1975, oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago. © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trust / UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


It was an exciting chance for me to research and develop ideas I’ve been fascinated with for years and to relate them to our upcoming exhibition, American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, which opens at PEM on June 6.

American artist Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) was among the first prominent, modern artists to paint cotton picking, an American epic in its own right. From the 19th century, cotton picking imagery, usually tainted by racist stereotypes, appeared everywhere — Currier and Ives prints, photographs, sheet music, maps, coloring books, postcards, movies.


1920-1929_Postcard_Picking Cotton in the Sunny South

Cotton pickers appeared in influential movies of Benton’s era too, such as D.W. Griffith’s controversial 1915 silent epic, Birth of a Nation, which showed scenes of cotton picking on a southern plantation before the Civil War in the first 15 minutes of the film.

King Vidor’s talkie from 1929, Hallelujah, opens with Stephen Foster’s famous 1851 song “Old Folks at Home” accompanying images of cotton pickers in the fields.

Benton took up the subject in the late 1920s in such works as Cotton Pickers, Georgia (1928), acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1933.


Cotton Pickers, Georgia, 1928–29, Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889–1975)
Tempera and oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art. George A. Hearn Fund, 1933

Cotton picking is associated with insidiously timeless expressions of the “Old South,” of the world of plantations and slavery, and with histories of poverty and racism stemming from cotton picking and sharecropping practices during Jim Crow. That’s largely why today the topic of cotton picking can be uncomfortable, and seem strange, distant and even taboo. But cotton and how it was harvested remains integral to American culture, history and experience, even my own.

These 1986 pictures of my brother Eliot and me were taken on our drive home to New Orleans from Alexandria, Louisiana, in the center of the state.

Eliot in cotton

Photo courtesy of author

Austen with cotton

Photo courtesy of author

The giant bins of mechanically-harvested cotton were an irresistible roadside attraction, but they were totally disconnected from the human experience of picking cotton, which is basically forgotten today. I remain struck by the sense of historical and social distance felt from King Cotton and its predominantly African American cotton pickers. For my lecture, I wanted to better understand some of the many reasons why cotton picking imagery basically disappeared after the 1950s.

I learned that mechanical harvesting all but took over by the 1980s and about the extensive efforts of the cotton industry during the last 50 years to remake and re-brand itself. The widespread embrace today of cotton as a comfortable, desirable fabric disassociated with how it was once hand harvested predominantly by black cotton pickers began with the introduction of the Seal of Cotton in 1973.

Cotton Seal

It continued with related ad campaigns. The most successful was the 1998 TV commercial that aired a new jingle, “The Fabric of Our Lives,” which country music star Hayden Panettiere recently re-recorded.

Today, the fiber is marketed as a luxury fabric in glossy ads for Supima cotton.

Supima Advertisement

Photo courtesy of author

The contrast between cotton as a feel-good fabric in our minds now and cotton picking by hand as a vanished way of life in America then is stark, even though Hollywood brought cotton picking back into our imaginations in Twelve Years a Slave, which won Best Picture at the Oscars in 2014.

12 Years a Slave

Twelve Years a Slave, film still, US Magazine

The aesthetic sophistication of director Steve McQueen’s shots of actors playing slaves picking cotton are inescapably related to the paintings and photographs of cotton picking I know from art history. And some of these powerful visual precedents are in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where I used to work.

Winslow Homer’s Cotton Pickers, painted in 1876, is an extraordinary painting that conveys the enormity of the labor required to pick vast fields of cotton.

Homer_The Cotton Pickers_1876

The Cotton Pickers, Winslow Homer (United States, Massachusetts, Boston, 1836-1910), United States, 1876 Paintings, Oil on canvas. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Homer’s sympathetic portrayal of the strong and beautiful women honors the fortitude of black cotton pickers. LACMA also has a 1931 Benton watercolorof cotton pickers  that is far more caricatured than Homer’s image and even than some of Benton’s other images, like his elegiac painting now in Chicago.


Cotton Pickers, Thomas Hart Benton (United States, Missouri, 1889-1975),1931, Drawings, Watercolor, ink, and graphite, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Thomas H. Benton Trust / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

These disparities, and the fact that African American artists also addressed the difficult subject of cotton picking, sparked my curiosity and profound interest in this important subject as well as my efforts to represent this range in the collection through such acquisitions as Cotton Pickers (1947) by John Biggers and Elizabeth Catlett’s Sharecropper (1952).

Cotton Pickers John Biggers (United States, North Carolina, Gastonia, 1924-2001) United States, 1947 Drawings Conté crayon and gouache on paperboard

Cotton Pickers, John Biggers (United States, North Carolina, Gastonia, 1924-2001), United States, 1947, Drawings, Conté crayon and gouache on paperboard. Los Angeles County of Museum of Art. © Estate of John Biggers / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


Sharecropper, Elizabeth Catlett (United States, District of Columbia, Washington, active United States and Mexico, 1915-2012), 1952, Prints; Linocut. Los Angeles Museum of Art. © Estate of Elizabeth Catlett

PEM’s upcoming exhibition also looks at Benton’s interests in American popular culture, film and history. I can’t wait to share his art with you.


  1. gail spilsbury says:

    I learned a lot from this presentation, thank you!

  2. Donna Seger says:

    I can’t wait for the exhibition!

  3. Gregory Herr says:

    Thanks for that. I’m about 25 minutes through your presentation, and it’s fascinating. As a newbie to Benton, I couldn’t tell from the blog post whether Benton was part of the problem or the solution, and perhaps the answer isn’t simple, given both caricatured and elegiac images in Benton’s works.

    Perfect prelude to both your upcoming exhibit and my next book, Empire of Cotton, a Global History by Sven Beckert.

  4. Aimee Lee Cheek says:

    Congratulations on a fine biographical presentation of a figure I’ve always found enigmatic. Your emphasis on Benton’s apprenticeship in silent films is telling. Thank you.

  5. Debi Milligan says:

    Why not invite Sven Beckert of Cambridge, MA to come and give a talk about all he researched and learned about cotton at the museum? He’s local and remarkable.

  6. Debi Milligan says:

    Why not invite Sven Beckert of Cambridge, MA to come and give a talk at the museum about his book, Empire of Cotton, A Global History? He’s local and remarkable.

  7. David Dufour says:

    That was very interesting. Thank you.

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