Thomas Hart Benton, Poker Night (from a Street Car Named Desire), 1948, Whitney Museum of American Art. This work was commissioned by a Hollywood producer David Selznick as a gift for his wife, Irene Selznick, who produced the play for the Broadway stage. Written by Tennessee Williams, the play tells a story of a down on her luck Southern widow, Blanche DuBois, and her relationships with her sister Stella, Stella’s rough and moody husband, Stanley Kowalski, and Stanley’s poker friend and Blanche’s love interest, Mitch. After losing the family ranch to creditors, Blanche is forced to move into Stella and Stanley’s small two bedroom apartment in New Orleans’ French Quarters. From the moment she arrives, Blanche does not approve of her sister’s husband, referring to him as loud and rough; Stanley, on his part, also does not take kindly to Blanche, and questions her motives and real reasons for coming to stay with them. Throughout the play, tension builds between the two characters, eventually erupting in Blanche’s psychotic episode and mental breakdown. In the scene depicted in this painting, we see a poker game, usually taking place at the Kowalski residence, with Blanche flirtatiously and defiantly observing herself in a hand mirror, with her sister cautiously looking on from behind her, while drunk and angry Stanley reacts to her petty taunting, with Mitch, in red shirt, intervening. This works comes from an artist that mainly specialized in large scale murals, that were usually politically motivated or depicted life mainly in the mid-western United States, usually of regular people doing everyday tasks. Coming from a highly political family, Benton has at some pointed stated, “Politics were at the core of our family life”, and he did indeed keep this mindset throughout his artistic career via his paintings and murals. In 1930, The New School in New York City has commissioned Benton to paint a mural for a conference room in one of the school’s new buildings. America Today, which was completed in 1931, depicts life in United States in 1920s, spanning from West to East. The mural, consisting of ten panels, was painted from sketches and rough drafts that Benton made while on his travels through each respective region of the country. Although never compensated for the work, Benton was indeed paid in eggs, the yolks from which he used to make his own egg tempera, in which the artist painted America Today. Being an admirer of old masters, and outspokenly opposing abstraction, rejecting the coming of Abstract Expressionism, a movement which eventually overshadowed his celebrity, Benton’s work echoes an almost El Greco-esque influence, with his elongated form and depiction of people. It is interesting to see Benton’s Regionalism style intertwine with a Renaissance undertone.
This post was requested by Cesar E.