NMAA Director's Choice
Achelous and Hercules
Achelous & Hercules by Thomas Hart Benton

Celebrating American Abundance

close-up of figure in muralAchelous and Hercules by Thomas Hart Benton is a raucous, gaudy, vibrant mural, 22 feet long, full of surging shapes and churning rhythms. By the time Benton painted it for a Kansas City department store in 1947, he had already been tagged by the East Coast critics as an uncouth, outspoken, provincial artist, so he may have been playing to his critics with his bright colors and athletic figures. I always imagine this scene with the sounds of Aaron Copland's “Rodeo” in the background. Or maybe it's closer to "spacious skies…amber waves of grain…purple mountains majesty and the fruited plain."

In this large postwar mural, the high-flying allegorical figure offering a laurel wreath and trailing a red drape seems especially out of place. She is there to remind us that this is not a simple Midwestern farm scene. Benton took the story of Achelous and Hercules from Bulfinch's mythology.

Pictured: Thomas Hart Benton, Achelous and Hercules, 1947, tempera and oil, 62 7/8 x 264 1/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Allied Stores Corporation, and museum purchase through the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program.

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Achelous and Hercules

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Smithsonian American Art Museum