Thomas Hart Benton: Preserving the American Past, I

Thomas Benton - Abe Nosed the Flatboat towards the Shore, 1953

Thomas Benton - Abe Nosed the Flatboat towards the Shore, 1953

Lisa N. Peters

Among the works Christine Berry chose to include in our recent works on paper show is an ink wash drawing by Thomas Hart Benton that came to us with the title of Abe nosed the flatboat toward the shore.  Our hunch that “Abe” might be Abraham Lincoln turned out to be correct, when we discovered that Benton had created this work for an illustration in a book by Virginia S. Eifert (1811-1966), a prolific author born in Springfield, Illinois, who wrote biographies and books on nature, natural history, and cultural history.

Abed Nosed the Flatboat - illustration

"Abe Nosed the Flatboat," illustration, opp. p. 100, Eifert, "Three Rivers South"

The book, entitled Three Rivers South: The Story of Young Abe Lincoln (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1953),  is a fictionalized biographical account written for teenagers of a trip Lincoln (age twenty-two) took with his stepbrother Jack Johnson and cousin John Hanks. The three were contracted to pilot a flatboat loaded with a cargo of hogs down the Sangamon, Illinois, and Mississippi rivers.

Eifert fills in the adventures that take place along the way with details, dialogue, and anecdotes, such as telling how Lincoln befriended runaway slaves.  Throughout, the young Lincoln comes across as indomitable.  Eifert describes how when Abe came to collect the boat for the journey, the man who had hired him, Denton Offutt, “set down his glass with a  thump and peered blearily in the direction of the voice.” When Abe announced he was ready to take possession of the boat, he was told, “There ain’t no boat! I plumb forgot to get me one!”  Abe, both “sick” and “boiling mad” answered, “Stop that infernal giggling and listen or I’ll shake it out of you.  We’ll build you a boat,” which of course Lincoln proceeded to do.  (5-6)

Eifert’s colorful descriptions of life on the river must have appealed to Benton, who had already illustrated a number of other books featuring Midwest rivers, including three by Mark Twain– Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1939), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1942), Life on the Mississippi (1944)—and Ward Allison Dorrance’s We’re from Missouri (1938). (He also devoted a chapter of his 1937 autobiographical An Artist in America to “The Rivers.”)

Virginia S. Eifert's Three Rivers South: The Story of Young Ave Lincoln"

Virginia S. Eifert, "Three Rivers South: The Story of Young Abe Lincoln" (Dodd Mead, 1953), title page.

The thirteen ink wash drawings Benton created for Eifert’s book are all in his inimitable style in which line and form are imbued with a baroque energy.  However, Benton steered away from literal representations.  He explained that too many illustrators “tend to overwhelm the reader’s own imagination and to take away from the suggestiveness of words with a too-bald literalness of representation.” He felt that instead, illustrators should know “the value of lightness, of the suggestive rather than the downright statement,” never being so “insistent as to check the play of the reader’s own visual imagination”  (quoted in Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton: Drawing from Life, 1990, 154).  Benton’s attitude is apparent in our drawing.  Whereas the caption for the illustration (taken from text on page 84) states, “Abe nosed the flatboat toward the shore and she settled into a berth in the crowded, bustling St. Louis water front,” our perspective is from the opposing angle, that of a spectator on the shore.  Our view, from a high building partially blocked by a neighboring building, encompasses the varied activities along the shore and a steamboat flanking Abe’s flatboat–Eifert observes Abe’s admiration for such steamboats on arrival in St. Louis.

See also the fascinating drawings created by Benton for his Social History of Indiana Murals, one for the Industrial Panels, 2 through 9, and the other for the Cultural Panels, 9 through 2, which includes the lanky figure of Lincoln as  a railsplitter.

A second post on some new Benton arrivals at the gallery is to follow . . .

One Response to “Thomas Hart Benton: Preserving the American Past, I”

  1. Thomas Hart Benton: Preserving the American Past, II « Spanierman Gallery | An American Art Blog Says:

    [...] addition to the wash drawing created by Thomas Hart Benton as an illustration for Virginia Eifert’s Three Rivers South: [...]

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