Strokes of Genius

updated 03/10/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/10/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

In New York City two enormous, valuable and influential works of art were lost for decades. Nobody stole them or locked them away. But curators forgot them, and unappreciative people brushed by them or rammed furniture against them until paint chipped off. The works, one in a classroom and the other in a basement lounge, were hidden under cracked yellow varnish and grime. Few people recognized them as landmark murals by great 20th-century American artists Thomas Hart Benton and N.C. Wyeth.

Left as they were, Benton's 10-piece America Today, painted in 1930-31 and depicting working-class life, would have been divided and sold; Wyeth's 14-piece Pilgrim-and-bird series, created between 1940 and 1945, would have soon decayed beyond repair. But corporate angels brought a happier ending. In October the Equitable Life Assurance Society unveiled the repaired Benton murals, bought from an art dealer for $3.4 million. Housed for decades at the New School for Social Research, the murals now adorn the lobby of the Equitable's new Manhattan headquarters. In November the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company opened a lobby exhibit in their nearby headquarters of the restored Wyeth murals, which were retrieved from the company's basement.

Because Wyeth and Benton continued to paint realistically after other major artists turned to abstract works, their popularity waned. They were scoffed at as mere illustrators, second-rate cousins to fine painters. But around 1970 public opinion shifted. "The Benton murals are among the most important American murals in this century," Rutgers University Art History Professor Matthew Baigell now says. Other experts praise Wyeth for his superb technical skill.

Benton himself caused much of the damage to his murals. He had made a half-joking deal to donate his series to the New School if it paid for the yolks in his egg tempera paint. Unfortunately, even with free yolks, Benton never completely mastered paint making. Because he failed to mix the pigment thoroughly with the yolks, the paint cracked. Some years later Benton patched the flaking spots. The recent restoration, which cost about $150,000 at the Williams College Museum of Art, included removing Benton's touch-ups and several coats of varnish. Says art conservator Thomas Branchick: "All this vitality and energy—bright fuchsias, pinks, yellows and limey greens—were underneath the crud."

The $500,000 Wyeth restoration conquered even greater problems. Wyeth's canvases were mounted directly on the wall with rock-hard and poisonous white lead adhesive. Industrial varnish covered the painting, making the murals likely to crack if the canvas was even jostled. After removing the varnish with solvents and abrasion, art conservator Margaret Watherston and her team attached several reinforcing paper layers to the front of the murals before cutting the wall behind and rolling the works into foam blankets. With plaster still clinging to the back, a 9x12-foot mural weighed 300 pounds. In her Manhattan studio, Watherston sealed cracks and cautiously retouched the paint. Altogether, "It was 2,500 square feet of problems," she says. "But they went from looking depressing to looking radiant."

In dramatic illustrations of Treasure Island and other children's books, Wyeth infused familiar subjects with his enormous enthusiasm. Similarly, his murals depict the Pilgrims with warm smiles instead of their usual dour, lifeless frowns. "Life at times seems almost too good, too rich for my spiritual digestive apparatus," Wyeth once wrote. "Were it not for my slight ability to vent my feelings through the medium of paint, I would burst." At his Chadds Ford, Pa. home, he shared his love of art with five children, four of whom also became painters. In 1945 a train hit Wyeth's station wagon, killing him and a grandson. Son Andrew and son-in-law John McCoy finished the last four panels.

As for Thomas Hart Benton, he took great pride in belonging to one of Missouri's first families. His great-uncle Thomas was the state's first senator, and his father, Col. Maecenus Benton, was a congressman. Benton's first mural was a smoke-puffing train that he drew at 6, much to his parents' dismay, on their new cream-color wallpaper. His America Today series was the culmination of years he spent touring the country, meeting and sketching people at work and play. "I don't know if it's art or not, and I don't care," he once said. "What I wanted to show was the energy and rush and confusion of American life." Benton completed 12 other murals before his 1975 death.

Both Metropolitan Life and Equitable insist that they get no great tax breaks or financial returns on their art investments. In any case, the public shares the wealth. A gentle warmth emanates from the Wyeth murals through the Metropolitan lobby. Uptown, the vivid Benton murals sing out in Equitable's new home. Once again, for all intents and purposes, Thomas Hart Benton and N.C. Wyeth have new works in the eye of the American public.

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