Thomas Hart Benton | ‘Whiskey Going into the Rackhouse to Age’ or ‘Whiskey Barrels,’ 1945

Thomas Hart Benton | ‘Whiskey Going into the Rackhouse to Age’ or ‘Whiskey Barrels,’ 1945

This painting Whiskey Going into the Rackhouse to Age or Whiskey Barrels, produced by Thomas Hart Benton in 1945, dates from the period of his greatest fame and prosperity, when his work was energetically promoted by the most innovative art dealer of the time, Reeves Lewenthal. Lewenthal had started his career as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, but then drifted into promotional work, particularly representing artists. In doing so, he became convinced that the art world was operating on an outmoded business model and needed to adjust to the new realities of the modern age. In 1934 he started a print gallery, Associated American Artists, to test his ideas.

Associated American Artists started in July 1934, when twenty-three artists met in Thomas Hart Benton’s New York studio. Despite its name, the gallery was not an artist’s association but a strictly commercial venture, and Lowenthal paid his artists a flat fee and then kept four fifths of the profit. Lewenthal publicly launched the project in October 15, 1934, in fifty large cities, and despite the ongoing depression it was a commercial success from the outset. Initially, the gallery was exclusively devoted to producing lithographs by major American artists. Lewenthal advertised his project in national magazines, and sold his prints in department stores in every region of the country as well as by mail order from his headquarters in New York City. His advertisements stressed the value of art as an indicator of the owner’s refinement and culture, and also stressed the patriotic significance of American subject matter. Whereas previous art dealers had made very small editions aimed for an exclusive high-priced market, Lowenthal produced relatively large editions, which were priced low and aimed at a middle-class audience. In the first offering the prints were priced at just $5 each, with a reduction of a dollar for each one if you purchased five at once.

In 1939 AAA’s success led the business to expand from a cramped 42nd street loft, where it handled sales by mail, to a handsomely designed 30,000-square foot walk-in ground-floor gallery at 711 Fifth Avenue, with art deco styling and the most modern forms of recessed electric lighting. It inaugurated the new space with a major exhibition of the work of Thomas Hart Benton, accompanied by a substantial catalogue with text by Thomas Craven. Lewenthal soon established a large stable of American realist artists, including Benton, Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry, and Rafael Soyer. By 1941 Lowenthal did $500,000 a year in business, and by 1943-44 this had grown to a million dollars a month and he had 107 artists under contract. Impressively creative, Lewenthal was a leader in marketing approaches which were still not usual in this period, when most art galleries were family affairs. He produced major catalogues; he advertised in national magazines; he published color reproductions of works by the artists he represented, and he maintained close ties with American business leaders.

One of Lewenthal’s innovations was to develop lucrative contrasts with major corporations for paintings which could be used for publicity and advertising purposes. His clients included such businesses as Esso, Abbott Laboratories, The American Tobacco Company, and the Scruggs-Vandervoort Barney Department Store in St. Louis. During World War II, he also arranged to do projects supporting the war effort, some commissioned by the army and navy, and others funded by large corporations. Other artists represented by AAA who took part in the commission were Joseph Hirsh, Zoltan Zepeshy, Lawrence Beal Smith Franklin Boggs, Aaron Bohrod, Paul Sample, Ernest Fiene, George Schreiber and Fred Ludekins. Benton, by far the most famous of the group, seems to have been the first to be hired, and several of the paintings Benton produced for these advertising commissions stand out as among his most celebrated works. For example, his painting of Tobacco Sorters, 1944, for the American Tobacco Company, is now in the Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, Arkansas, and another painting from this series, Night Firing of Tobacco, 1943, recently sold for $2,652,500 at Christie’s (Christie’s sale 14315, November 21, 2017).

This painting of Whiskey Barrels was produced about 1945 by Thomas Hart Benton as part of a commission by Hiram Walker-Gooderham & Worts Limited, for use in their Imperial Whiskey advertisements. Similarly to the iconic, Fluid Catalytic Crackers (1945, Massachusetts Institute of Technology), which resembles the work of Charles Sheeler in its precisionist rendering of an oil refinery, this work portrays a whiskey distillery with similar meticulous accuracy. In the foreground, three muscular men roll whiskey barrels down a platform, presumably to a warehouse where the liquor will be aged. Founder of Imperial Whiskey, Hiram Walker, pioneered the now de rigueur process of barrel-aging whiskey, which was made previously by pouring spirits over charcoal. Implicitly, the painting stresses two themes that were central to American mythologies of this period: the superiority of American technology and manufacturing, and the strength and manliness of the American worker. It’s worth noting that the painting was produced in 1945, the year World War II came to an end, when American patriotism was at its height, when abstract painting was not yet in vogue, and when Regionalists such as Benton were still dominant in American art. It was reproduced in a full-page advertisement in Life Magazine on June 3, 1946.

 After being used as an advertisement, this painting was stored away and forgotten until the 1980s, when it was rediscovered in a warehouse in Canada. On the verso, the painting carries a label filled out by Benton himself, providing the title, the value ($5,000, which would have been a year’s income for many Americans at the time), and the medium (oil-tempera), as well as a note that it should be handled carefully because of its “fragile surface.” The painting also carries a label indicating that it was included in the 26th Annual Art Director’s exhibition, presumably around 1946.

The Hiram Walker & Sons Distillery remained in the Walker family until 1926 when it was purchased by Harry C. Hatch, who merged it and his own company, thereby creating Hiram Walker-Gooderham & Worts Limited. The company was acquired by British beverage company, Allied Domecq, in 1987; then was purchased by Pernod Ricard in 2005 and sold to Fortune Brands later that same year; Beam Global Spirits & Wine, Inc. split from Fortune Brands to become an independent publicly traded company called, Beam Inc., in 2011. Three years later, it was purchased by Suntory Holdings and was renamed Beam Suntory. The company is headquartered in Chicago and Imperial Whiskey is brewed in Bardstown, Kentucky about 15 miles from Maker’s Mark distillery, in Loretto, Kentucky.

– Henry Adams Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland

Whiskey Going into the Rackhouse to Age or Whiskey Barrels by Thomas Hart Benton will be featured in the October 17 American and European Art auction. The sale will also include the additional paintings (Lot 106-Lot 117) that were commissioned as part of a 1945-1947 advertising campaign for Hiram Walker Distilleries of Windsor, Canada and Peoria, Illinois. Many of the works in this session, including the Thomas Hart Benton subsequently appeared in issues of Life Magazine. While the details of the commissions are not fully known, one requirement for each artist was to include whiskey barrels in their work.