Monday, July 11, 2011


Thomas Hart Benton was a serious painter whose allegorical pictures of slow country life showed skill and intellect:

Thomas Hart Benton. Persephone

So what in the world was he thinking when he tried to paint a rock n' roll party, with people dancing to "the Twist" by Chubby Checker?

The Twist (1964)

Check out those bongo drums.  Benton was so clueless, you have to laugh. 

N.C. Wyeth was an immensely talented artist.  The range and depth of his illustrations are awe-inspiring: 

But despite all his talent, he couldn't design a decent Coca-Cola ad to save his life:

Robert Fawcett was a fiercely talented draftsman who chiseled his subjects with an aggressive line.   His powerful black inkwork often overwhelmed his colors:

Robert Fawcett, detail from Big Business

So who in their right mind would select Fawcett to paint a dainty watercolor advertising women's cosmetics?

Fawcett, Palmolive ad, 1935

What on earth were these artists thinking?  Were they on drugs?  Desperate for money?   Deliberately stretching to expand their range? 

Sometimes you can tell in advance that, no matter how talented or how hard they work, an artist is just not the right person to handle a particular subject.  So when someone tells you an artist is "great," it doesn't hurt to ask yourself, "at what?"


J. King said...

So true. Wonderful post for a Monday morning. Thanks!

BaconIsGood4You said...

I love seeing artists/designers push their limits and work outside of their comfort zone, even when it leads to worse results. To create the same thing over and over is death.

MORAN said...

BaconIsGood4You, does that mean that Elvgren and Vargas were dead? Or the illustrators who paint nothing but planes? Or the illustrators who only did portraits for the cover of Time Magazine?

vanderleun said...

"Check out those bongo drums. Benton was so clueless, you have to laugh. "

Not so fast, grasshopper. As it turns out bongos were a standard item at dance parties of the era (1960-64).

For instance there was the 1961 item from AL VERLAINE AND HIS LATIN-TWISTERS The Bongo Twist.

Listen at

Then there was The Bongo Stop which shared a hit list with the Twist.

Listen at

You have to remember that Beatniks were still alive and well during this era and that any party in which beatniks and folksinging enthusiasts were at were highly likely to have bongos present.

In truth, bongos figured in a lot of dance hits of the day such as Hully Gully Bongo

And the ever-popular Rock a Bongo Boogie from 1960

It's not too much of stretch to think that Benton, attending house parties at the time as an "artiste" would have observed bongos and guitars in use as drunken accompaniments to wild twisting on the 45s.

In short it's safe to say that Benton was more clued-in to his era than the slapdash painting scholarship of today.

vanderleun said...

"despite all his talent, he couldn't design a decent Coca-Cola ad to save his life:"

Here again there are examples that place this estimate of NC Wyeth's commercial talent to the "I don't think so" side of the ledger.

There are three very good Wyeth Coca Cola jobs right on this page (scroll down),nc.htm

chuck pyle said...

Speaking as an illustrator with many decades toiling in the vineyards, I can attest that choices made are often NOT driven by the highest aesthetic expectations, just pure professionalism and the choice of the artist or the layout made by the client. As one of my teachers used to say after finishing a really professional, but otherwise forgettable chunk of illustration art, "Well, that's a new set of snow tires" (paid for). Sometimes even the gods bomb.

Larry said...

I blame the AD for that.

David Apatoff said...

Jim King-- many thanks.

BaconIsGood4You--I agree that it is great to see artists get outside their comfort zone, and didn't mean to suggest otherwise with this post. One of the risks of getting outside your comfort zone is that you can always flop terribly.

MORAN-- I'm not such a fan of Vargas... BaconIsGood4You might have been correct about him. But as for some of the others, I agree that artists such as Boris Chaliapin, who painted face after face for Time Magazine over many years were brilliant. And I certainly wouldn't fault McCall for focusing on space art.

Donald Pittenger said...

Well, Benton did paint all sorts of twisted (physically) people during his Regionalist heyday -- so how big a jump was that to the C. Checker version? And in his own mind he probably rationalized it by thinking it was just a continuation of his slice-of-life schtick.

That said, David, you make a good point. After all, Benton was past his peak of popularity and likely scrambling for relevance. And he was late to the twist game with that 1964 painting; I recall peering into the Peppermist Lounge on West 44th Street in the spring of 1962, and that was at least half a year after the twist went mainstream, if memory serves, and I had the impression that it already was past its peak.

Donald Pittenger said...

Another thought, David.

How about coming up with a list of illustrator fish-out-of-water possibilities. F'rinstance:

Saul Steinberg as court painter to Louis XIV.

Jon Whitcomb doing a men's adventure mag cover.

Norman Rockwell doing one of the 1950s beer ads in which no one can be depicted actually drinking the stuff.


Smurfswacker said...

The Fawcett piece isn't so strange as one might think. This mid-1930s drawing illustrates a step in the artist's stylistic evolution.

Fawcett's 1930s work started out in a very mannered art-deco style that looked more like Rockwell Kent than it did like, well, Robert Fawcett.

Nor is the dainty subject matter so different from the sort of assignments he was doing at the time. It's unusual mostly because it's in full color. The majority of Fawcett's early illustrations were in black-and-white.

David Apatoff said...

vanderleun-- I definitely defer to your superior scholarship regarding bongo drums, and was glad to be educated. The songs you flagged started me on the path to learning that bongology goes back way before beatniks, to
Danny Kaye and the Andrews Sisters performing the Bongo Bongo Bongo song (1947)  and Carmen Miranda and Jerry Lewis performing the Bongo Bingo (1953) . This is definitely fertile ground for a separate post, and perhaps a whole new blog. (Of course, I'm not sure how much any of this had to do with the twist.)

Getting back to what I think is the point, I still think that Benton's painting of the Twist is laughably clueless. To me these figures (including the bongo player) look like they are suspended in molasses, with none of the vitality central to the period or the dance. Do you disagree? If Benton "observed bongos and guitars in use as drunken accompaniments to wild twisting on the 45s," he sure flopped miserably at capturing what he saw. I think the far more likely explanation is that an ossified 75 year old painter living in Kansas, who had not been treated kindly by the modern world, was still (laudably)thinking about that world from a distance and trying to participate in some small way. Personally, I think he would have made better art with a subject he understood.

Chuck Pyle-- I agree 100%. Sometimes the gods do bomb, and that doesn't lessen them in my esteem. I think the contrast between their great successes and their failures is what makes these pictures interesting. If they fail because they are on deadline and need a new pair of snow tires that's one thing. But if they fail because there are boundaries to their genius, what are those boundaries and why are they there? Fawcett could have bought snow tires for a whole fleet of vehicles if he could have convincingly painted a boy/girl smooch in warm pastel colors for women's magazines. But he just couldn't do it. Why?

PS-- your snow tire quote, which I enjoyed, reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from cartoonist Leonard Starr: "You'd be surprised how good your drawing starts to look at 3:00 in the morning."

David Apatoff said...

Larry-- I agree that the AD is partially responsible. There were ADs who admired Fawcett so much, they would stretch to find a reason to hire him, and offer him cartoonish or theatrical work for which he was not well suited. Often he turned it back, telling them they needed a different kind of artist.

Donald Pittenger-- a delightful idea! How would you feel about Jon Whitcomb's illustrations to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle? Or James Thurber's illustrations to Moby Dick?

David Apatoff said...

Smurfswacker-- between your last comment about John LaGatta's appreciation for firm derrieres and your current comment demonstrating your knowledge of the evolution of Robert Fawcett's style, you are rapidly proving yourself to be a person of great taste.

I understand that Fawcett's style was still evolving, and that Fawcett was capable of drawing with a subtle, delicate line. But to me, this looks like Fawcett trying to imitate Dufy or Bemelmans, and it just doesn't seem natural to him. His first student work as a teenager from the Slade school gravitated toward that solid, structural feel that he retained through that Rockwell Kent phase and onward to his mature style. When he tries to draw with a light, whimsical line, drawing two dimensional people with rubber bones, he does not seem as successful to me.

Anonymous said...

Great post . I have mused what different artists might come up with if they were enticed with , say, a couple of million dollars , or coerced at gunpoint , or both , at tackling another artist's favorite subject matter with the best effort they could muster.

Say , Frazetta doing a Fuchs boardroom of executives pounding scotch and smoking with shit eating grins . Or Fuchs trying a Conan oil , overnight , with little or no reference . Or maybe B.Peak doing an issue of The Fantastic Four with a few of Kirby's best efforts as reference , or Kirby doing a Peak style ad job .

Maybe Rockwell doing a Dali , as he once parodied Pollack .

Alex Kanevsky stated in an interview that he , at some point ,wanted to try doing a painting of Elvis , and or kittens , in a way that would transcend the ascribed kitsch of those subjects .

Al McLuckie

Laurence John said...

if you look at this page of N C Wyeth illustrations (and your examples too David) it seems clear to me that the images that 'bomb' are the ones in which the artist isn't imaginatively engaged with the subject matter. the images aren't believable because the artist doesn't get the subject or believe in the situation. like a method actor they're not 'feeling it'... they're faking it.

Richard said...

I believe that is a Conga drum.

StimmeDesHerzens said...

What were they thinking? The so-called bad illustrations seem to be advertisements for the most part, so maybe it was dollar signs. But I didn't think the counterpoint pics were THAT bad. But, what do I know?. Anyhow, the story of Ms Willing Bingham will be continued, thus you must stay tuned. :-) I was highly honored BTW. g/B

Fryewerk said...

Some ad art, commercial art is so dictated and designed as a job, that the result expresses the stifling nature of the rules and requests of the assignment. I wouldn't be surprised if in the Wyeth cases, the layout and perspective was thumbnailed by someone else and they said, "illustrate this."

Wyeth's compositions, when natural and dynamic, asymmetrical, interesting, the ad art is rigid, logical, staid and banal.

vanderleun said...

" I think the far more likely explanation is that an ossified 75 year old painter living in Kansas, who had not been treated kindly by the modern world, was still (laudably)thinking about that world from a distance and trying to participate in some small way. Personally, I think he would have made better art with a subject he understood."

I do not disagree that The Twist is a Benton of the 2nd or 3rd intensity and is not on a par with the work of his prime, but it is the rare artist who can match at 75 his work of his 30s. (There are of course some notable exceptions.)

I do disagree that there is evidence here that he was thinking of the "modern world" from some distance and seeing to to participate in it. It seems to me much more likely that the Twist party of the subject of the painting was some local event that he had attended and observed -- perhaps even danced at since a modified twist is not beyond the capabilities of a 75 year old man or woman.

And of course the kind of muscular painter that Benton was would have more than enough good reason for despising the museum culture of his day and today. Indeed, there is much to despise. That said it is only the weak painter who needs a kind of close-up and personal jostle of the contemporary world in order to thrive.

A much more likely explanation for The Twist's weakness is that, like every painter, Benton just had an "off day." Even the most protean artists have them. Picasso, for example, had years of off days.

Now as to N.C. Wyeth and "works for hire...."

अर्जुन said...

D.A., what, no Marc in your heart?

Which drum will next be fodder for your drunken ire? Tablas?

"I believe that is a Conga drum." ~ Congas+Rock… c'mon, really?!?

Anonymous said...

We are looking for new artists to feature!
Get in touch!

Anonymous said...

So what in the world was he thinking when he tried to paint a rock n' roll party, with people dancing to "the Twist" by Chubby Checker?

It's not hard for me to imagine that Benton doodled some rather abstract figures which suggested "the Twist", and the painting evolved from there rather than from some a priori plan. He certainly had a tendency towards a convoluted stylistic mannerism, so it's no wonder he arrived at a twist. Just a very natural expression of his artistic tendencies without regard for what anyone would think.

David Apatoff said...

Al McLuckie-- Despite all his talent, I suspect that a Frazetta painting of a boardroom with executives would look pretty ludicrous. Good example.

Laurence John-- "faking it" has to be a major cause of these pictures going astray (along with AD interference, deadlines and some of the other causes that have been mentioned here). With some of these artists I understand why they would paint a subject with which they were not creatively engaged (as Chuck Pyle says, "snow tires"). It's a little harder for me to understand why a "fine" artist such as Benton (who in theory had greater freedom of choice) would pick such a subject.

vanderleun and Laurence John-- I had previously seen some of the other Coke ads you flagged, and I'm not wild about any of them (whether they are the fault of the art director or not). All of Wyeth's horizontal ads designed for Coke seem pretty hokey to me, with amateurish compositions (and Coke that looks like a drink extracted from the La Brea tar pits). His more rectangular paintings are better, but only because they took stereotypical Wyeth paintings and slapped a fancy border around them to denote nostalgia and Americana. We've seen those same Wyeth clouds in a dozen paintings (although not quite so tarted up).

Only one commenter has found a truly excellent Wyeth Coke painting, in my opinion. Check out
this image discovered by Lawrence Roibal

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote: "I believe that is a Conga drum."

Omigod, I believe you're right!

It really does take a village to arrive at the truth in these complex areas. Now all of my careful research into bongos is for naught. I will just have to start over again with congas (and I can tell you from my first google search on the subject that material on the conga dance and the conga drum are not as neatly divided as one might hope.)

Gosh, this blogging business is such hard work....

kev ferrara said...

The Regionalists believed in homespun American subject matter... farming, railroads, factories, city life, poker games, the west, the suburbs... But with the rise of the U.S. in the 20th century, there was a concurrent rise in the frivolity of how we entertained ourselves. A conga drum party in a dorm may be the pinnacle goofball spectacle. Imagine any regionalist making a painting out of that... Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, the Ashcan boys, Bellows, etc. It can't be done! (Could anybody do it? Are there any conga party paintings anywhere that are great art? Is the American Dorm Conga Party "Art Kryptonite"?)

Richard said...

"So what in the world was he thinking when he tried to paint a rock n' roll party, with people dancing to "the Twist" by Chubby Checker?"

I would also like to mention that I believe the title of the painting references the dance, not the song.

Richard said...

Also, also, also -- David, do you have a word document, pdf, etc. of your blog entries? I'd love to be able to download them so that I can read them when I don't have access to the internet (e.g. the bus).

Anonymous said...

I know it´s not the best place to say it, but could you tell me please where I can find more Henry Raleigh´s works? thanks!

Robin Cave said...

It is off topic but you can find a bunch of really good big Raleighs on the Heritage Auction site.

but you might have to sign in to see them really big. Tonnes of other good illustrators too.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much!

roostertree said...

Next time, hesitate before you condemn. My paid design experience is extremely limited (I've chosen to starve & do non-commercial art), so take this for what it's worth. Note that it's a big reason I chose this path.

Clients know nothing about design, but they do have oodles of market research. Acknowledging that I know nothing about Wyeth's work habits, how likely is it Wyeth did a better draft of that particular poster, perhaps with the coke glass off centre, just to have the client say 'Put it in the middle.' (meaning 'I don't know what looks good, but I know what I want.') ?

Maybe it wasn't the case here, but it does sum up the mindset of the client who tries to anticipate what will separate a consumer from his/her dollars.

Ugly but effective is a-okay in marketing.

gout treatments said...

Real artist are rare nowadays on the net, they start posting their works.

David Apatoff said...

Etc, etc wrote: "Benton doodled some rather abstract figures which suggested 'the Twist'"

They also suggested the contorted souls writhing in the fire pits of hell in Dante's inferno.

Kev Ferrara-- I imagine there are some artists who could handle a conga party (Bob Peak or Lucia) but Benton??? I agree with you, sheer kryptonite. Also, "Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, the Ashcan boys." I don't understand why they'd even be interested.

Richard-- I agree with you that Benton was probably referring to the dance, "the twist" rather than Chubby Checker's song of the same name (although according to wikipedia, "the simple dance that we now know as the Twist seems to have come from Chubby Checker in his preparation to debut the song to a national audience on August 6, 1960, on The Dick Clark Show"). Apparently, some commenters believe Benton was watching that show, grooving to the frug and the pony, when Chubby Checker came on and inspired him with the twist.

As for your question, "a word document, pdf, etc. of your blog entries? I'd love to be able to download them," I never thought about it but I'm flattered by the question. Until I think of some intelligent way to handle it, Firefox has a free extension called "Read it Later" which is great for reading web content on a bus or subway using an unconnected laptop or smartphone.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous and Robin Cave-- I agree that Heritage is a great resource. Also, the Illustration House gallery in NY published a whole catalog of Raleigh's work years ago and may still have copies. Other than that, I'd turn to the internet. There's no book (yet).

Roostertree wrote: "Clients know nothing about design."

I'd hesitate before I conclude that.

Anonymous said...

They also suggested the contorted souls writhing in the fire pits of hell in Dante's inferno.

I assume that's tongue-in-cheek, but even so I don't agree; even if that is the case, that kind of subject matter would seem far more anomalous from Benton than the twist in my opinion.

Real artist are rare nowadays on the net, they start posting their works.

Given the great ideological disparity of accomplished artists, I hardly think that's an effective way to evaluate truthfulness.

kev ferrara said...

David... yeah, you're right. Bob Peak may have been able to do it. Maybe Al Parker too.

The reason I listed Andrew Wyeth, The Ashcanners, Hopper, and Bellows was that they were enormously talented and also painted "americana" subjects... and therefore, there was some chance that some native american cultural ritual like a conga party might have crossed their radar screens. I agree that the odds they would have found the subject worth creating art about seems low... which supports my point that the conga party is such a goofy spectacle that it is akin to art kryptonite.

Robin Cave said...


all the evidence is helpful but I think the Heritage Arts giant originals give us so much more information than most other displays.

It is more detail than a book or magazine illustration and really helps break down the process if you look close enough. Where else could you study the details of so many classic illustrations.

I don't think they will remain online in this state forever, some Thai or Chinese publisher will start publishing books of the classics and they will disappear from such ready sources.

Check em out while you can.

----> ROBin

chris bennett said...

I could kinda imagine Diego Rivera being immune from that particular art kryptonite...

Laurence John said...

Lucian Freud died yesterday aged 88.

Anonymous said...

Freud was a great painter. I get the sense that modeling form with paint was what excited him and was what he considered beautiful, with disregard for all other conventions of beauty. While I don't share that perspective, I love the way he made warm and cool tones interact to describe form.

Richard said...

Requiescat In Pace

P. Hos said...

I don't think that's bongos. Looks more like djembe to me, which might be why there's only one of them.

David Apatoff said...

Robin Cave-- I agree with you, Heritage has a phenomenal site. They established it to provide reliable information to prospective buyers, and I have often used it for that purpose, but it is also of great use to fans and scholars.

Chris Bennett-- Hard to say whether Rivera would be vulnerable to that kind of kryptonite, but there were a great many things that his style would preclude him from doing effectively. Can you imagine Rivera doing a race car scene the way Peter Helck did?

Laurence John, Etc, etc and Richard-- I agree, Freud was a major talent. He was a dedicated artist and helped keep oil painting alive as a legitimate medium.

P. Hos-- first bongos, then conga, then djembe? Clearly I am way over my head.

Smurfswacker said...

After reading the fascinating back-and-forth regarding Benton's "Twist" I dreamed up another reason he might have made the painting.

Perhaps Benton used the means he knew best--making a painting--to try to understand something he couldn't comprehend: today's kids and their crazy dances. Maybe Benton felt that a visual interpretation of a twist party would give him a sense of what the kids were so excited about.

But Benton's vision was distorted by a lifetime of experiences and understandings from an earlier generation. Seeing someone pounding bongos, he might have thought "Ah! Drums!" and painted something like a tomtom because that's what "drum" always meant to him.

It reminds me of the frustration of drawing from reference. Say I sit down to draw Paris 1908. No matter how meticulous my research, I'll always get it wrong. I can put into my picture only what I have discovered. A genuine 1908 Parisian knew what the world looked like and smelled like and felt like. All I'll ever manage is a 2011 take on 1908 Paris.

As Benton demonstrated, cross-generational understanding is so tricky because everyone outside a given generation is always working from reference. In the early 70s I saw a painting by an established portraitist (can't remember who) of a hippie couple. It was painted with great sympathy and attention to detail, Still it looked like an old guy's version of hippies. Something about the piece told us that he was painting what he saw but couldn't understand just what it was he was seeing.

KatWarrior said...

I realize this was posted forever ago (wow, on my birthday, even), but since I'm browsing the art-related blogs I followed to get some inspiration, I revisited this entry.
It's kind of encouraging to know that even the most skilled artists all have their weak points and aren't necessarily amazing at everything!

Ed Gurney said...

Benton was clueless! Ha ha ha! That's funny!