University Museums

Title: Ploughing It Under
Name: Lithograph
Date: 1934
Period: Depression era
Medium: Lithograph on Rives paper
Country/Culture: American
Dimensions: 8 x 13 3/8 in. (20.3 x 34 cm)
Signed: Benton, in pencil lower right
Marks: watermarked "Rives"
Edition: Edition of 250.
Classification: Prints and Printing Plates
Credit Line: Transfer from the Art and Design Department (formerly the Applied Art Department), Iowa State University. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
Object Number: UM82.87
More Information
Ploughing it Under is based on a drawing completed by Benton in South Carolina in 1934. This print was originally published under the title Ploughing. However, Benton's intended title was Plowing It Under, referring to federal Agricultural Adjustment Administration's program passed in the spring of 1933. This program was one of the major legislative thrusts of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first one hundred days of his presidency and insured that acreage formerly dedicated to cultivation would be plowed under, in theory reducing overproduction and raising farm prices. The program proved controversial, even among Midwesterners who might have been thought to benefit from it. Benton's print refers to a portion of that year's cotton crop, already planted, that was plowed under in an effort to reduce production, increase demand and improve commodity prices.

In 1934 Benton reworked a farm scene he had painted five years earlier, Plowing it Under. He then produced the lithograph from the painted image, thereby broadening many times over the audience for this pictorial gibe at the Agricultural Adjustment Act subsidy program.

Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri. At the youthful age of sixteen, he began his formal artistic training at the Art Institute of Chicago. He is one of three nationally recognized regionalists: Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton. His works of art are represented in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Although Tomas Hart Benton originally pursued modernism in his work, he later denounced New York’s circle of modernists who had formed around Alfred Stieglitz. Benton actually destroyed most of his abstract paintings and began pursuit of the “American scene,” eventually landing himself in the middle of the regionalist movement aside Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry. Although Benton spent a large part of his adult life in New York, he relocated to Kansas in the 1930s to pursue portrayal of rural America.
Born in Neosho, Missouri, to a political family, Benton was fully aware of the role government played in agricultural communities. His father was a U.S. Congressman and his granduncle a senator, so it is understandable that the artist, who committed part of his career to depicting rural America, would examine the government’s agricultural policies in his work. “Ploughing It Under,” originally published under the title “Ploughing,” refers to the 1933 program of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), whereby a portion of the year’s cotton crop, already planted, was plowed under in an effort to improve prices. The AAA resulted in excessive agricultural waste in an effort to eliminate surplus and ensure higher prices. In the end, AAA only benefited large landowners while the poorest farmers, particularly tenant farmers and sharecroppers, were evicted once they were paid not to grow crops.

Published References: "The Lithographs of Thomas Hart Benton", University of Texas Press, Austin and London. Compiled and edited by Creekmore Fath. Copyright 1969, 1979. pg. 36-37. AAA Cat.: 1935-01; 1936-01; 1936-03; 1936-04 Page 36 "8. Plowing It Under Also titled 'Ploughing' 13 3/8 x 8 Edition 250 First lithograph by Benton to be circulated by Associated American Artists, New York City, under the title 'Ploughing'. A painting Plowing It Under was also done in 1934. The painting is in the collection of the artist. 'The mule is a damned dramatic animal.' (Thomas Hart Benton) One of the cornerstones of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal in 1933 was the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, popularly called the 'Triple A'. The legislation endeavored to increase farmers' incomes by reducing acreages and output of farm commodities and, by so limiting supply, to raise prices. By the time the Act of Congress passed and was signed by F.D.R. on May 12, 1933, spring crops had already been planted, and in order to accomplish anything that year 10.4 million acres of cotton were plowed under. Later in 1933 the AAA bought 6.2 million pigs and 220,000sows, which were processed for food fertilizer. These were the only phases of the AAA program which resulted in destruction of farm products. However, the groans of the cotton bolls and the squeals of the little pigs "plowed under" were used by the Chicago Triune and Hearst press in a campaign of derision against Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace and Under Secretary Rexford Guy Tugwell which lasted for years and made "Triple A" and "plowed under" art of the political vocabulary of the time. [In script by Thomas Hart Benton] Drawing made in South Carolina in 1934, showing Tugwell's program in operation