The Story behind Harpo Marx’s Benton

A few months back I spoke to Bill Marx, son of Harpo Marx, about his father’s purchase of Thomas Hart Benton’s Spring on the Missouri (1946). Bill let me know about a sketch for the painting–previously unknown to scholars–that the artist had sent his father. This past December, with the generous help of NCMA Trustee Jim Becher and his wife, Betty, the Museum was able to purchase the drawing at auction.

Benton made the sketch in early 1937 when the Mississippi and St. Francis rivers flooded a wide region of southeastern Missouri. The Kansas City Star had sent him to chronicle the natural disaster. The artist sent back ink sketches, six of which were featured in the newspaper’s Sunday edition under the headline, “The Great Flood in Missouri As Seen And Recorded By Thomas Hart Benton.”

The short accompanying article noted that Benton had recorded an important chapter in the state’s history, and connected his reportorial work with the controversial social history murals that he had recently completed for the Missouri State Capitol. After finishing his assignment for the newspaper, Benton chose to stay in the flood-devastated region and continued to document the effect that the disaster had on people living in the area. It is likely that the sketch for Spring on the Missouri, which did not appear in the newspaper, was created at this time.

The artist wrote about his experience of the flood in his autobiography, An Artist in America, which was published later that year. He noted that “descriptions can give no sense of the dread realities of flood misery–the cold mud, the lost goods, the homeless animals, the dreary standing around of destitute people.” He continued:

The roads of the flood country were full of movers. Wagons, trucks, and Model T Fords loaded with household goods, beds, stoves, etc., even chicken coops full of chickens, even with pigs, wandered slowly away from the waters. Lord knows where they were going. Every once in a while seepage from under the levee would force evacuation of a house and you would see a great struggle to get animals and goods out of the rising water. (Thomas Hart Benton, An Artist in America, New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1937, pp. 146—47)

In 1946–nine years after the flood–Benton returned to his sketch of one such panicking family and developed the composition into the painting he titled Spring on the Missouri.

Spring on the Missouri above the fireplace at Harpo Marx’s home in Rancho Mirage, California. Photo courtesy of Bill Marx.

That same year, the painting was featured in an exhibition at the Associated American Artists gallery in Chicago, where it was bought by none other than Arthur “Harpo” Marx, the silent member of the Marx Brothers. Like many Hollywood celebrities, Marx collected paintings by living American artists. Spring on the Missouri was possibly the most important painting in his collection. It hung prominently above the fireplace at the actor’s home in Rancho Mirage, California.  Probably at the time of the painting’s sale, Benton gave Marx the drawing, adding the inscription, “This note made in the great 1937 floods in Missouri was the original idea for your picture.” (The artist often referred to his sketches as “notes,” viewing them as records of the events he witnessed.)

This “note” provides context for the painting and highlights the artist’s role as a reporter. Benton made few changes in developing his sketch into a finished composition.

Left: Thomas Hart Benton, Study for Spring on the Missouri, 1937, pen and ink and sepia wash over graphite on paper, 8 13/16 x 12 in., Gift of Jim and Betty Becher; Right: Thomas Hart Benton, Spring on the Missouri, 1945, oil and tempera on Masonite panel, 30 ¼ x 40 ¼ in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina

He clearly preferred to adhere to the facts of the scene he had observed firsthand. However, to better frame the composition, he added a shed and a washtub in the right foreground. He also included a second figure loading the wagon. The lightning bolt in the background adds a sense of urgency to the unfolding tragedy. Without the drawing, we would have no evidence of Benton’s faithfulness as a reporter or his theatrical reimagining of the narrative.

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