Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975)

Slaves, 1925

Oil on cotton duck mounted on board, 66 7/16 x 72 3/8 in. (168.8 x 183.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund. Image © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 2003.4

Thomas Hart Benton was a pioneering painter and muralist known for his dynamic large-scale depictions of Midwestern agriculture, industry, and landscapes as well as of challenging episodes in American history. Slaves is one panel in his extensive multi-painting series The American Historical Epic (1919–28), which presents a revisionist view of the country’s early history through themes of racial conflict and economic exploitation. This work is an indictment of the abuse enslaved Africans suffered in America from the seventeenth century until the practice was abolished in 1865. A white overseer brutalizes a man and his family on the deck of a slave ship as it approaches the American shore. Although in Benton’s time slavery was a topic considered largely in historical terms, Slaves appears unabashedly contemporary in style and execution and unequivocally conveys the artist’s abhorrence of both slavery and the ongoing mistreatment of African Americans.

Learn more about this painting on the Terra Foundation website.