This is Marjorie Searl speaking about the painting Boomtown by Thomas Hart Benton.
The title of this painting, Boomtown, is a word that describes a community experiencing rapid economic and population growth, usually due to one significant resource or phenomenon. Rochester, New York, for example, was considered to be America's first boomtown, because the Erie Canal passed through and transformed it from a small village to an economic engine, the Young Lion of the West. Around a hundred years later in the 1920s, when oil was discovered in the Texas panhandle, boomtowns like Borger, depicted here, sprang up virtually overnight to accommodate the thousands of people who were seeking their fortune. The vitality and specificity of the scene is deeply connected to the artist's belief in the strength and character of the lives of ordinary Americans. Because of his interest in this subject matter, Benton was often referred to as a Regionalist, as was painter John Steuart Curry whose beautiful portrait, Negro Head, is on view nearby.
Here is Boomtown in the artist's own words:
"Out on the open plain beyond the town a great thick column of black smoke rose as in a volcanic eruption from the earth to the middle of the sky. There was a carbon mill out there that burnt thousands of cubic feet of gas every minute, a great, wasteful, extravagant burning of resources for momentary profit. All the mighty anarchic carelessness of our country was revealed in Borger. But it was revealed with a breadth, with an expansive grandeur, that was as effective emotionally as are the tremendous spatial reaches of the plains country where the town was set. One did not get the feeling, in spite of the rough shacks and dirty tents in which the people lived, of that narrow cruelty and bitter misery that hovers around eastern industrial centers. There was a belief, written in men's faces, that all would find a share in the gifts of this mushroom town...Borger on the boom was a big party..where capital.joined hands with everybody in a great democratic dance."
Before you is Boomtown, by Thomas Hart Benton. Completed around 1928, Boomtown is roughly 46 inches high by 54 inches wide. This complex, oil on canvas painting captures a snapshot of an active oil town, set in a panoramic landscape of the rolling hills of the Texas Panhandle. The foreground of the painting depicts a mid-day, bustling street scene in Borger, a town that grew up almost overnight in the mid-1920s. In a busy intersection to the left of center we see lively, one-dimensional caricatures of men and women, parked Model T cars, and hastily erected buildings lining a newly-created dirt road. The turquoise hills in the background are dotted with oil rigs and dominated by a dramatic plume of dark gray smoke.
You are looking at the painting as though you are peering down at a vibrant intersection of a town that suggests a temporary stage set from a 1920s Western. In the center, bottom edge of the painting on the main street of the intersection, two men are engaged in a fight. Three men have gathered to watch the brawl. A brunette in a dark brown, sleeveless dress walks away from the fight, toward us. From the right, a Texas Ranger in an olive-green uniform raises his billy club as he walks toward the fight along the main street. In front of him, a couple-the woman in a red dress and the man in black with a cowboy hat-cross the street away from the brawl.
We now move to the center foreground of the painting. Starting from your left across the street from the fight scene, is a light pink hotel building situated on the corner of the intersection. On the hotel, which is a two second-story building, there are two signs: the largest says, Mother Holls Bed and Board, Baths .50¢ and a side panel reads, Rooms. A small, temporary poster by the door advertises, Girls Wanted. Two men in cowboy hats walk past the hotel. One of them steps off the curb in front of the hotel toward two men shaking hands in the middle of the intersection. One man wears a cowboy hat and red bandana and the other man wears a black suit and white hat.
Outside the hotel on the main street, a green car and a red truck are parked on the diagonal. Across the side street from the hotel is a small, red house with a sign that reads lunch. A network of telephone wires connecting three poles spans across the intersection and behind the side street.
In the center of the painting, in front and to the right of the small café, is a block of four buildings lining the main street. The first, a pastel orange structure, is a theater with a white awning and marquee. In front of the theater, one-dimensional caricatures of men in black suits and hats and women in brightly colored dresses and sun-hats hurry down the sidewalk. Next door to the theater, a white awning advertises the Midway Dance Hall, and the last business on the block is a gray hotel with a balcony. Four black Model Ts are parked on a diagonal along the block of buildings. A man, in a white hat, sits in the first car, closest to the intersection. Standing in the middle of the street not far away, a blonde woman in a white, long-sleeved dress faces the man as she opens a white parasol.
The background, which defines the setting for the story, encompasses half the painting. Located directly behind the theater is a gray watchtower. Next to this tower and behind the block of storefronts on the right five small gray shacks are lined up. In the distance, behind these buildings, a black train crosses the middle horizon, dividing the cream-colored middle ground from the more distant turquoise hills. Five oil rigs span the hills, becoming progressively smaller as they get farther away. Moving on a diagonal toward the right, there is a massive black cloud of smoke, dominating the distant horizon and expansive cream and light blue sky.
Thomas Hart Benton, who lived from 1889-1975, is an American painter. This painting was acquired through the Marion Stratton Gould Fund in 1951 as part of the Encyclopedia Britannica Collection.