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Harpo Marx’s Benton

/ May 3, 2013
When Thomas Hart Benton’s Spring on the Missouri was first shown in a Chicago art gallery in 1946, it caught the eye of a visiting Hollywood celebrity. As Art Digest reported the next day (coincidentally April Fool’s Day): “The first purchase from the Benton show … was made by Harpo Marx, who stopped off at Associated American Artists to do a little gallery gazing.”
Thomas Hart Benton, Spring on the Missouri, 1945, oil and tempera on Masonite panel, 30 1/4 x 40 1/4 in., Purchased with funds from the state of North Carolina

I came across the Art Digest article in our file on the painting and was surprised that little had been written on Harpo as an art collector. I had always loved the Marx Brothers (and highly recommend Duck Soup (1933) to the readers of this blog) but had never thought of any of them as the “gallery gazing” type. My curiosity was sparked, and I set out to find out more about Harpo’s collection.  Recently I had the pleasure of speaking to Harpo’s son, Bill Marx, about his father’s interest in art.

LF: I’m curious to hear more about the Benton painting. It was in your family for so long, I’m guessing that you have some stories about it.

WM: Not really. There weren’t really stories. Dad and Mom were collectors, and they happened to consider Benton an important artist at the time. They collected—eclectically I might add—they had everything from Benton to Dalí to George Grosz and early LeRoy Neiman. Basically, they were interested in American artists.

LF: In your book, Son of Harpo Speaks!, you mention that your father painted as well. Could you tell me a little more about that?

WM: Dad started painting when he was in his 30s, and then he stopped painting because he had a lot of work. And then he had a heart attack, so went back to painting again and he painted numerous, numerous paintings for hospitals and charities. His stuff is all over the country. He went back to performing again, and then he had his second heart attack, and so he went back to painting. I do feel that it was a lifesaver for Dad. He would go into his studio for seven hours, and come out, and just had the best time. He had to have a creative outlet, and so he was pretty much always involved in the arts. He was painting all the way up to the very end.

LF: In your father’s autobiography, Harpo Speaks!, he mentions that he met Salvador Dalí. Do you know if he ever met Thomas Hart Benton when he was out in Hollywood?

WM: Now I can’t speak to that. Hang on. I’m going to send you something that will knock your socks off.

While still on the phone, Bill began emailing me images from his own personal archive—newspaper clippings about Harpo’s purchase of the painting, family photos of the work hanging over the fireplace at “El Rancho Harpo,” and (what really knocked my socks off!) a pen and ink study for the painting that Benton had sent to Harpo after the sale. The drawing was one of a series that Benton had made for a Kansas City newspaper to document a devastating 1937 flood.

Before my email to Bill, he had not known where the painting ended up (it had been sold after Harpo’s death in 1964), and he was delighted that it had found a home in a museum. Since its acquisition by the NCMA in 1977, Spring on the Missouri has become a favorite stop for visitors and school groups in our American galleries. (I’ve noticed that on tours this work is the one that really gets people talking. The picture tells a story, and visitors—school children in particular, though adults as well—want to tell you what they think that story is.)

Spring on the Missouri over the fireplace at “El Rancho Harpo”

WM: That’s phenomenal. I never knew where it went, and to have kids come in and benefit from Benton’s extraordinary ability, it warms my heart. It keeps the world from going crazy.

To learn more about Harpo’s collection or to see examples of his own paintings, visit Bill’s website at “Harpo’s Place.”

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