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Thomas Hart Benton's 'Utah Highlands' Now Hanging At The Nelson-Atkins Museum

Paintings conservator Mary Schafer and registrar Jill Kohler hunched over a painting on a rolling cart beneath Thomas Hart Benton’s "Persephone" Tuesday morning in the Enid and Crosby Kemper Rotunda at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Using a flashlight and an iPad, the two were busy meticulously documenting the condition of Benton’s “Utah Highlands” before museum staff installed it on the wall of the gallery.
“I am trying to get a nice raking light on the surface with a really strong flashlight,” Schafer said, shining the bright beam across the colorful, undulating landscape. “That often tells me if there is any paint that has started to lift up. And I can tell you that is not the case on ‘Utah Highlands.’ It’s in really good shape from what I can see.”

The gouache on paper is on long-term loan to the museum and will be on display for the next year. Kohler said that making note of every scuff and scrape is normal documentation for the history of each object that arrives at the museum.

The "Lost" Painting Found

Students in the Shawnee Mission High School (now Shawnee Mission North) class of 1957 purchased the painting from Benton and presented it as a gift to the school. Earlier this year, school alumni expressed concern about the painting's whereabouts and the Shawnee Mission School District searched for a way to safely display it.

“The school district had it in a very safe location so the rumors of it being lost or missing, or being in a superintendent’s attic or basement, were completely unfounded,” said Stephanie Knappe, the Nelson's Samuel Sosland Curator of American Art.

Though he is best known as a Midwestern Regionalist painter, Benton traveled widely. “This is a painting that was made in the early 1950s," Knappe said. “In the '50s he was looking for what he called ‘grand scenery.’ And he was influenced by Technicolor cinema, so that is a little bit of this bright palette that you see in ‘Utah Highlands.’”

As the museum prepares for American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, the first major Thomas Hart Benton exhibition in more than 25 years, Knappe said it was an ideal time to display this work.

“There's something exciting about this painting just to show his connection with that popular mode of storytelling — the movies," Knappe said. "So it’s wonderful synergy in terms of timing to have a painting here now leading up to that special exhibition.”

‘Utah Highlands,’ will remain on display though 2016, in the Enid and Crosby Kemper Rotunda at Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, Mo. 816-751-1278.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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