Benton flood painting sells for $1.9 million

NEW YORK — A poignant 1951 painting by American artist Thomas Hart Benton depicting a devastating flood in Kansas and Missouri sold for nearly $1.9 million Thursday.

The price for "Flood Disaster" exceeded its pre-sale estimate of $1.2 million. Sotheby's did not disclose the buyer's name.

The painting was created to highlight the extent of the damage caused when the Kansas and Missouri rivers swelled to 70 times their normal size on July 13, 1951, killing 17 people and displacing more than 518,000 residents.

In a further effort to shed light on the flood victims' suffering, the Missouri artist made a lithograph of the painting and sent a copy to each member of Congress urging them to expand a flood relief appropriations bill. It did not pass, and many of Benton's lithographs wound up in the trash.

President Truman had estimated the damage at more than $1 billion and reluctantly signed a $113 million flood relief bill.

An Associated Press photo that ran in the New York Times on Oct. 15, 1951, shows Benton holding the lithograph while looking at his painting and initial sketch.

The painting shows two wrecked houses, a mangled car and a washing machine covered in mud on the shore of the Kansas River, looking toward Kansas City. A woman, man and child are pictured walking up to their destroyed home.

Benton was Jackson Pollock's teacher at the Art Students League of New York. He was the son of a U.S. congressman and the grandnephew of a U.S. senator, who was his namesake. He was at the forefront of the Regionalist art movement with such artists as Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry.

Sotheby's declined to identify the seller, saying only that the painting came from an East Coast collection.