Prohibition Days: The Conservation of Thomas Hart Benton’s “Bootleggers”

Northeast Bedroom Gallery

Like any organism or machine, works of art need to be maintained, protected from adverse conditions, and occasionally treated or repaired. The canvases of Thomas Hart Benton pose unique conservation challenges, because the artist often combined incompatible media, including egg tempera (in which pigment is mixed with egg yolks and water) and acrylic paint. With funding provided by the Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project, Bootleggers was recently restored to the sharply faceted, glowing, gem-like glory of its original appearance when it was completed in 1927.

Benton’s painting remains an embodiment of the roaring twenties in all their restless energy, excess, and opposing forces. In this large-scale painting, we observe the life cycle of a bottle of hooch—the era of Prohibition distilled into a single scene. This was Benton’s first canvas to address contemporary social problems and dramatic changes in American life. New technologies, new class struggles, and new forms of entertainment would become his primary subjects. He wrote that “The new airplanes, the blimps, the dredges, because they were so interesting in themselves, tore me away from all my grooved habits, from my play with colored cubes and classic attenuations, from my aesthetic drivelings and morbid self-concerns.” With Bootleggers, Benton began a series of indictments of the corrupting influence of power and capitalistic exploitation in 1920s America. The economy of Benton’s storytelling and the expressiveness of his bristling, rippled, and elongated figures have given the work its enduring appeal, long after the folly of Prohibition ended.

This exhibition is curated by Phil Archer, Betsy Main Babcock Deputy Director of Reynolda House.

Above: Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) Bootleggers, 1927. Egg tempera and oil on linen mounted on Masonite. Reynolda House Museum of American Art. Museum Purchase with funds provided by Barbara B. Millhouse. © 2022 T.H. and R.P. Benton Trusts / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York