Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Abstract: “The Belated Return of the ‘Son’”: Thomas Hart Benton’s Prodigal Son

Here is the abstract of the paper I will be presenting in the Visual Arts and the Bible section at the Society of Biblical Literature annual conference in San Diego this November on Thomas Hart Benton's lithograph, Prodigal Son (He also did a painting of this image). A discussion of this lithograph will also be included in my reception history of the parables book.

I discovered this lithograph while on a research trip to the Ackland Art Museum at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. If I recall correctly, it was Christopher Currie, Coordinator of Academic Programs at Ackland, who brought it to my attention.   

Thomas Hart Benton, Prodigal Son 

The Abstract:

“The Belated Return of the ‘Son’”: Thomas Hart Benton’s Prodigal Son

Thomas Hart Benton’s Regionalism emphasized that art should represent life as it is actually lived in a specific time and place: “penetrating to the meaning and forms of life . . . as known and felt by ordinary Americans” (Benton 1951: 9). Religion did not play a dominant role in Benton’s work—Benton himself had little use for religion—but his art portrays the religious experiences of numerous people; his lithographs include, for example, African-Americans headed to their country church in southern Arkansas (Sunday Morning, 1939), a pastor preaching to his small white congregation in the mountains of West Virginia (The Meeting, 1941), and people headed to an evening prayer meeting in a church “anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line” (Prayer Meeting or Wednesday Evening, 1949). Other works illustrate additional dynamics of religious life, such as revival meetings, hymn sings, Ozark baptisms, and Salvation Army street testimonials, including the paintings, The Lord is My Shepherd (1926), Holy Roller Camp Meeting (1926), Lord Heal the Child (1934), and the provocative Susanna and the Elders (1938).  

Benton’s lithograph, Prodigal Son (1939)—which was a study for his later painting of the same name—could be interpreted as connecting aspects of labor and migration in the context of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Benton, in fact, created this lithograph around the same time that he was employed to create a series of drawings of the characters of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for the 1940 Twentieth-Century Fox film.

The black and white lithograph presents an idiosyncratic and haunting view of a prodigal son who has waited far too long to return home. The house stands as only a ramshackle shell of its former self—with no father to greet the prodigal, no servants to attend to him, and no elder brother to complain about him. The evocative sun-bleached bones of a cow are all that’s left of what could once have been a fatted calf. Although other interpretations are possible, this lithograph can speak about the utter despair of those people in the rural areas of the United States who were not able to survive on their desolate farms. 
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That's the end of the abstract. Since the theme of the Visual Arts and the Bible session is labor and migration, the abstract focuses on that aspect of the image's possible meaning. There are other possibilities for interpretation of this image, however, and I will also explore those interpretations both in the SBL paper this fall and in the book.

This image is one of the more striking ones I have found so far.

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