At a Glance

  • How do you analyze a massive primary source? Divide it up! Suzannah Niepold of the Smithsonian American Art Museum guides teachers in observing Thomas Hart Benton's mural Achelous and Hercules. What parts of the painting seem realistic? What parts might be symbolic?

Smithsonian American Art Museum: "Acehlous and Hercules"

Establishing the Theme Establishing the Theme

Video Transcription

  • Analyzing the Mural
  • Sharing Observations

  • 5:25
  • 5:49
  • Suzannah Niepold: This, first off, is much, much bigger than the one we just saw. So what happens when we all look at the whole thing, to start with, is we forget and we miss out on some of the details, especially on the sides. So I'm going to start by asking you to divide in the middle, and have—actually this group is now a little bit bigger, divide in the middle. And have this group look at everything from this man over this way. And you guys look at everything from this woman in blue over this way. Look closely, notice as much detail as you can, you can talk amongst yourselves; try and figure out what's going on in the picture, and keep an open mind for now. We'll put it all together later. Speaker 1: What do you think that is behind him? Is that clouds or… Speaker 2: I think it's mountain? Speaker 3: What did you guys decide this looked like? A river? Speaker 2: Because it's sort of the same color as what's in the foreground. He's gotta stand on something. Speaker 1: He's right, you're right. And then the river—and maybe that's muddy. Yeah, I saw that. Speaker 3: And that looks like Little Boy Blue! Speaker 1: Yeah, I saw that. Speaker 4: I'm not really sure what that is. What the woman—maybe Freedom? Speaker 1: Yeah, she's carrying like a wreath—that's what they used to wear. Speaker 3: And there's a steamboat— Speaker 4: Red is always a prominent color, and it's clearly in the center, so that must mean something. Speaker 1: Well, it's like blue and red. Speaker 5: It's like the muddy Mississippi? I don’t know. There's a steamboat. Speaker 4: I was thinking gold instead of muddy, but it could be muddy. Speaker 1: But it looks like it's harvest time. So all the work has been done, the food— Speaker 2: American bounty, the corn, the prosperous land. Speaker 1: And everything—at least these three subjects seem to be very relaxed. Speaker 2: Yep, not doing any work. Speaker 1: He's working, but it's okay, he's not being overworked. So there's a sense of safety, a sense of security. Suzannah Niepold: So, let's start with this group here, what's going on in this half of the artwork? Speaker 1: We were looking at—we started first on sort of the food. That it's harvest time, and then the people sitting on top of the cornucopia of food as maybe the food is the support system that allows them to feel secure and safe from want. And then we were looking at, in the background, at what we assume is water, but it's not blue—so is that golden? Or is it muddy to reflect the Mississippi because of the steamboat? And then we were looking at the mountain-slash-and/or clouds in the background and trying to decide what that was as well. Speaker 2: And didn't know if that was "Little Boy Blue." And the date is '47. Suzannah Niepold: And you saw that because the artist so inconveniently put that in the corner? Darn it! You noticed what's really prominent in this half of the picture is that harvest, the bounty, and it's all spilling out of the cornucopia. I like the way that you say that's maybe the support that makes them feel secure, and you used the phrase "freedom from want." Now what era is that from, too? Speaker 3: Roosevelt. Suzannah Niepold: Roosevelt, that's right, end of World War II. So that really fits right into this. And then you wondered also about this weird color, it's water because there's a steamboat on it, but maybe it's a golden color or a muddy churning color that made you think Mississippi, Old Muddy, that kind of thing. So you've situated it a little bit in place and time. How about this half of the artwork? Speaker 4: I grew up on a farm in northern California, so this really reminds me of home with the foothills, the coloring of the countryside, the live oaks along the ridgeline, and the mountains in the background. So that really reminded me of home and harvest time. Suzannah Niepold: So more harvest, American farm, American Dream. What else? Speaker 5: It looks like there's a struggle of some sort with the bull. It was at one point tied up, you can see the lasso around its horns but it's cut somehow. Suzannah Niepold: We talked about the farm; notice there's this struggle here between this man and the bull, he's gotten loose. What else is going on over here that we haven't talked about yet? Speaker 6: The African American gentleman on the fence there. Suzannah Niepold: So he's sitting on the fence, what might his role in this scene be? Speaker 7: I think the symbolism of him being "on the fence," it can go either way—he can help in this struggle, or he can—I don't know. Suzannah Niepold: Maybe, purposefully, he's literally on the fence as you noticed. Speaker 4: It looks like he was very content to watch, but now that the bull's broken free he's getting involved and coming in to help.

  • Suzannah Niepold: Putting the artwork together, how do you think the two halves fit?

    Speaker 1: It's like a new Manifest Destiny, too. You've got Liberty right there on the cornucopia, and this seems more the wildness of the West. Like the Manifest Destiny picture that we've all seen before, you kind of move from progress to more wild.

    Speaker 2: Almost two Americas, where on the one hand we have this security, we've won World War II, life is great; but then the bull being loose and still offering a threat is sort of there's still challenges out there that we need to face.

    Suzannah Niepold: Okay, so there's still that struggle of two forces there in the middle.

    Speaker 3: The right side seems very calm and serene, the boy is sitting very relaxed, and his eyes are almost closed. And the two women looking very peaceful, and she's almost falling asleep. On the left it's chaos, there's this raging bull.

    Speaker 4: And the bull, doesn't it represent economy? Don't we have [on] Wall Street the big brass or whatever bull down there? And then there's this man on a horse waving in the background, and I'm not quite sure—he seems happy, but he seems to be saying goodbye; he doesn't seem to be coming, he seems to be leaving or passing by. So I don't know if the country's struggling with—cause after World War II, we're coming out of the Great Depression, and what does this new economy, the GI Bill being in place, I don't know if any of that—but yet, maybe we're moving from one base economy to another?

    Speaker 5: The other thing with 1947—because African Americans were allowed to fight in World War II, but then they came back and they weren't given their rights; somebody said he's kind of like on the fence, and is he on on the fence because he's like, "Am I free? Do I have rights?"

    Suzannah Niepold: Right, so pre-Civil Rights era. One thing that's interesting if you look to the bull, and maybe that's a symbol and maybe that means something else. One symbol we've seen him used for is the economy and the global market. Is there anything else that stands out that as though it might not belong on a farm in America in 1947 or doesn't look quite like it comes from that era?

    Speaker 6: Maybe the cornucopia?

    Suzannah Niepold: Yeah, I don't think you'd expect to—you probably, growing up on a farm, wouldn't have a giant cornucopia in your backyard?

    Speaker 7: No, but it is a symbol that stands for something else.

    Suzannah Niepold: Ah, so again a symbol that might be standing in for something else. Anything else that doesn't seem middle—middle America farm?

    Speaker 8: Well things aren't all going to be on the same farm. It's agriculture from across the country. You're not going to grow grapes in the same place that you grow wheat in the same place that you grow pumpkins and—

    Speaker 9: The other group pointed out the two women. They're not exactly wearing farm clothes. And the big cape—I'm not sure what's in her right hand.

    Suzannah Niepold: So one woman almost compared to the Statue of Liberty, so maybe they're more symbolic than realistic as well. Now, we've covered up the label, but looking at a bit of information gives us some clues. Not only was it painted in 1947, it was painted by Thomas Hart Benton, who's a Missouri artist. But he called it Achelous and Hercules. If we look back at our Greek mythology, we see there's a myth of the fight between Hercules—who might be a familiar name, usually students have heard about him; he's the son of Zeus, he's half god, strong man. The myth is that he is fighting over a girl, he wants to marry Deianira, and he has to fight for her hand in combat with Achelous—who is a river god. He takes on many forms depending on the type of river; so if he is a winding river he's a snake, and if he's a charging river he is a bull. So here we have a symbol, maybe not of economy but of the river. And it's a battle between the river and between man. So knowing that, what do you think the artist may be trying to say? Why is the struggle between man and the river important in this setting?

    Speaker 5: Irrigation projects?

    Speaker 10: Flooding.

    Suzannah Niepold: Flooding, irrigation.

    Speaker 1: Transport of crops.

    Suzannah Niepold: Right, transport. So all of this—if you notice this harvest, we need to harness nature to create that. But sometimes it fights back, right, someone mentioned flooding. Benton was living in Missouri on the Missouri River during some very severe floods. So when he was commissioned to paint this for a department store in Kansas City, he chose a scene that he thought the people in that area would respond to of man conquering the bull. Because what happens is Hercules rips off the bull's horn and that's what turns into the cornucopia, so that's how California got its symbol.

    The label I didn't want you to read makes a connection to the Marshall Plan. The idea that Europe was starving after the war and America was very proud of its bounty and its ability to feed the world. So that's one connection you can make. I didn't want you to read it ahead of time because I didn't want that to be the only connection that you make.