About The Artwork
When a former public relations executive named Reeves Lewenthal opened the New York-based Associated American Artists (AAA) in 1934, his goal was simple: to sell popular, easily accessible, and inexpensive art to the middle classes. According to historian Erika Doss, AAA pioneered the idea that American art should be treated like any other commodity.1 Lewenthal hired artists to create small-scale prints and marketed these works to consumers using the same advertising methods employed to sell everyday goods such as cigarettes and soup. During the Great Depression and in the early years of World War II, AAA responded to — or, arguably, produced — a desire for “museum-perfect Originals” available to “every cultured person,” not just the wealthiest collectors, according to the advertisements featured in mainstream magazines. The lithographs of Thomas Hart Benton, exemplified by works such as Old Man Reading, proved to be among Lewenthal’s biggest sellers, and became icons of a particular view of America.
Produced in 1941, Old Man Reading depicts a figure seated in a cane-backed chair in a plain interior. Spartan furnishings along with the hole in his workers’ overalls suggest that the man lives very modestly, yet he sits focused on the edifying text of a newspaper. Is he reading, however? The old man’s large, expressive hands suggest activity but his wizened eyes appear closed. The image, though not entirely clear in its message, suggests both industry and intellect and presents a moment of quiet that bonds an isolated figure with news of the outside world. Modeling in light and dark is achieved through cross-hatching and other techniques learned from intaglio printmaking. Benton maps the geography of the sitter’s face and hands with extensive wrinkles, which also seem to permeate his clothes, and the strokes of the artist’s lithographic crayon follow the contours of the various surfaces. Old Man Reading reveals a moment of leisure enjoyed after a day (or a lifetime) of work.
At the time he produced this print, Benton served on the faculty at the Kansas City Art Institute and frequently sought out models from surrounding communities. This approach was typical for Regionalist artists such as Benton and other AAA artists like John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood, and provided the basis for a large body of work. Regionalism, in Benton’s hands, represented a kind of stylized realism that focused on popular American scenes, primarily rural and working class. He developed his style in large history paintings and public murals, not always free from controversy, such as America Today at the New School for Social Research (1930), Arts of Life in America (originally installed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1932), and his largest and most extensive mural cycle on the Social History of the State of Missouri in his home state capital at Jefferson City (1936). Prints made in multiples of 250, such as Old Man Reading, made Regionalism available to a wider audience and shifted it from the halls of museums onto the walls of American living rooms.
Assistant Professor, Frederik Meijer Honors College, Grand Valley State University
- Erika Doss, “Catering to Consumerism: Associated American Artists and the Marketing of Modern Art, 1934 – 1958,” Winterthur Portfolio 26, no. 2/3 (Summer – Autumn, 1991), 144.