Spencer Museum of Art The University of Kansas

Narrative Devices in Art

The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley by Thomas Hart Benton Thomas Hart Benton United States, 1889-1975
The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley, 1934
oil, tempera on canvas mounted on aluminum panel
104.8 x 133.4 cm

Object Description
The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley is a large oil painting depicting a scene inspired from a traditional Ozark folksong. The popular folksong was a tragic love ballad in which a jealous lover lures his fiancée into the woods to talk about their upcoming wedding. She grows tired and wants to turn back. He accuses her of cheating, she protests, and under the light of the full moon, he plunges a knife into her chest (Lawless, 1961).

Song illustration
Thomas Hart Benton, along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, made up a group of artists know as Regionalists. These artists were interested in depicting scenes of ordinary life in the United States, especially in the Midwest. In the 1920s, Benton journeyed across the country and traveled through the Ozarks. He produced a series of paintings inspired by traditional folksongs. The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley is part of that series. In this painting, Benton illustrates one of the most popular and tragic love ballads. He may have heard such ballads on his trip to the Ozarks or perhaps from his childhood days in Neosho, Missouri.

Three musicians in the lower right corner seem to be creating the scene with their music. The unstable background, rolling hills, and the tipped space appear to float around them. The musicians have their backs to the jealous lover and his fiancée, the two main characters from the ballad, and are seemingly oblivious to the action behind them. Faint musical notes in the swirling bands of colors flow up from around the violin and lead back to the young woman, linking the two scenes together. The men are wearing cowboy hats and traditional attire. There is also a haystack, a cow in the pasture, and a small cabin with adjacent outhouse. Some critics have described this scene as stereotypical "Ozark characters set in an Ozark background" (Lawless, 1961, p.37).

As with many of these traditional folksongs, the origins are often unknown and they have a long history of oral circulation based on memory. This particular ballad was so widespread that many different variations developed. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly which variation Benton was familiar with, but the basic story stays the same. Benton successfully captured the mood and illustrates the ballad in one scene.

Relevant stanzas:
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.

  1. This painting tells the story of a traditional folk song. What shows us that this illustrates a musical piece?
  2. Are the musicians a part of the story, or are they telling the story?
  3. How does Benton connect the foreground and background? Which part does your eye focus on first? How does Benton help our eye move through the painting?
  4. Benton paints a very detailed landscape in this work. How does the setting relate to Benton’s involvement with the Regionalists?

Have students pick a piece of music that has meaning to them and begin sketches to illustrate that piece. They should place their images in a setting that would be important to describing the lyrics in the song. Their setting could be either an interior or a landscape, but must include a foreground, middle ground, and a background. Students need to pay close attention to elements that help the viewer focus on and move through the image. Modeling and blending should be stressed.

Look for movement throughout the piece and use of setting to create a mood and environment. Assess to what extent the work illustrates the selected song.