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Thomas Hart Benton, American, 1889 - 1975
Medium: Oil on panel
Painting: 29 7/8 x 41 3/4 in. (75.9 x 106 cm)
Frame: 35 5/8 x 50 3/4 in. (90.5 x 128.9 cm)
Credit Line: Eugenia Buxton Whitnel Funds
Object Number: 75.1
Copyright: © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts /
UMB Bank Trustee / VAGA, New York, NY
In his 1937 autobiography An Artist in America, Thomas Hart Benton wrote, “My first pictures were of railroad trains. Engines were the most impressive things that came into my childhood. To go down to the depot and see them come in, belching black smoke, with their big headlights shining and their bells ringing and their pistons clanking, gave me a feeling of stupendous drama, which I have not lost to this day.”
Benton’s fascination with trains is evident in Engineer’s Dream, inspired by a song of the same name written by Carson Robison, America’s first cowboy radio singer. A harmonica player, Benton was interested in American folk and country music and made paintings based on song lyrics. The tune recounts a mythic train wreck through the dream, which turns into a premonition of disaster, of an old man sleeping by the fire. The man’s son is a train engineer racing through a stormy night to arrive on time when his train comes to a bridge that has washed out. The closing refrain mournfully states, “And then through the night came a message, and it told him his dream had been true. His brave son had gone to his maker along with the rest of the crew.”1 The canvas is divided diagonally into two sections. In the lower right, the engineer’s father dreams in bed, not a chair, of the upcoming disaster. Above him, the monstrous train, incarnating Benton’s previously quoted description, roars off the tracks. Unsuccessfully attempting to prevent the calamity, a frantic figure runs alongside the train while a man in front waves a red flag. The cruciform shape of the telephone pole adds to the drama of the event.
The son of a famous congressman from Missouri, Benton studied at the Art Institute of Chicago before traveling in 1908 to Paris where he stayed for five years. Upon his return, his paintings were based on European modernism. Soon, he developed a new “American” art that addressed local themes painted in a naturalistic style known as Regionalism. Benton was also indebted to the Mannerist art of Michelangelo, El Greco, and Tintoretto. Their example can be seen in the contorted, monumental figure of the engineer; the manner in which objects are abstracted into swirling, curvilinear forms such as the water above the engineer's left knee; and Benton's use of color and value.
1. The Engineer’s Dream, Carson J. Robison, Hold Homestead Publishers, 30 April 1927.