Art. History. Culture.
Who says you have to be a Parisian or a New Yorker to get respect in the art world? Thomas Hart Benton, along with his friends Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, formed a group known as the Regionalists, representing the Midwest and (often, but not always) ordinary life in their art. I appreciate Benton’s art because it brings to mind the vibrant colors and exaggerated Mannerist figures of El Greco, whom I adore. In addition to Midwestern realism in subject matter, Benton liked to juxtapose familiar Midwestern landscape with scenes of allegory, mythology, or folklore. His lengthy titled painting, The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of the Lone Green Valley, from 1934, is based on the Ozark, Missouri legend of a man who murdered his fiancé after unfounded suspicions of infidelity.
This tale of love and tragedy has a long and untraceable oral history. As the legend goes, a man and his fiancé are walking into the woods together and talking about their wedding plans. Yet the woman’s mind wanders, and she grows tired. She tells him she wants to leave and go back, which he takes completely out of proportion. He then accuses her of cheating, to which her protests convince his jealous mind that he is right. So he takes out a knife and stabs her in the heart, killing her.
Thomas Hart Benton has laid an interesting composition for the ballad, with a trio of figures sitting at a table in the foreground playing music and drinking, and the main characters of the legend in the background about the act out the culminating moment of their tragedy. The trio of figures seem to set the scene for the story. Being oblivious to what is happing behind them, they are probably singing the ballad right now with its events being carried out in an imaginary atmosphere. Indeed, Benton’s dreamlike setting for the ballad seems to begin at the tip of the musician’s fiddle, undulating behind him in a yellowish wave of landscape that leads to the young woman and ends with the bright harvest moon shining in between the two lovers. The gangly, whimsical looking figures and undulating settings are of Benton’s trademark style.
The following are stanzas from the ballad:
Down in the lone green valley, where the violets used to bloom, there sleeps one gentle Lemo now silent in the tomb…
‘Oh, Edward, I am tired, I do not wish to roam; for roaming is so dreary. I pray you, take me home.”
Up stepped this jealous lover and made one solemn vow: ‘No hand on earth can save you, For I shall slay you now.’
Down on her knees before him she humbly begged for life, but into her snowy bosom he plunged the fatal knife.
“Oh, Edward, I forgive you, although this be my last breath. For I never have deceived you.” Then she closed her eyes in death.