Forgotten Folk Songs

Long, triangular abstract painting with texts.
Thomas Hart Benton (America, 1889–1975), Folk and Popular Songs, 1932. Tempera on board, approx. 32 x 176 1/2 in. (81.3 x 448.3 cm) each. Unlocated.

In 1932 Juliana Force, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, commissioned Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) to create a series of eight murals for the reading room of the library of the museum, which was located at that time at 10 West Eighth Street. Benton chose the theme The Arts of Life in America. As noted in the artist's autobiography, An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography, he sought to document "the popular arts of the cities and the countryside—the arts practiced by, or directed toward, people in general" (67), thereby demonstrating that popular art, from gospel singing to shooting craps, was simply the refinement of common activities and pastimes. The completed cycle not only featured celebrations of regional arts and crafts (Arts of the City, Arts of the West, Arts of the South and Indian Arts) and American folk music (Folk and Popular Songs, reproduced at top left) but also included two panels devoted to social issues: Unemployment, Radical Protest, Speed, and Political Business and Intellectual Ballyhoo.

Unfortunately, the series was not a critical success and in 1953, when plans to relocate the Whitney Museum to a larger space on West 54th Street were initiated, it was decided that the murals would not be transferred to the new building. According to the curatorial files of the New Britain Museum of American Art, the staff of the Connecticut institution (then known as the New Britain Institute) seized the opportunity to acquire the set. To ensure that the curators of the Whitney could not change their minds, a team of curators and workmen traveled from New Britain to New York City to remove the panels in the course of one evening. Three ceiling panels, however, were left behind by the team. One was acquired by the New York Studio School and eventually purchased by Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. through James Graham and Sons, New York, and given in 1971 to the Crysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. The two ceiling panels that comprise Folk and Popular Songs are unlocated. It is probable that the two panels were never removed from the reading room and destroyed during the demolition of the building. If so, why were these two sections neglected? Perhaps since they were installed on the ceiling, they were inaccessible—or were simply overlooked. Perhaps on the evening of the removal, the New Britain team ran out of time and had to abandon them. Perhaps the panels were ignored because they were not figurative and thus considered of lesser interest or value. Sadly, it is very likely that these fascinating images, two of the last works Benton executed for a New York institution, are lost forever.

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