In a high-profile publicity and marketing move, Wanger commissioned nine popular artists of the day to each paint a different motif for the upcoming John Ford-directed film, The Long Voyage Home, a war-time movie based on the Eugene O'Neill play. The other eight artists who accepted the commission alongside Wood were Thomas Benton, George Biddle, James Chapin, Ernest Fiene, Robert Philipp, Luis Quintanilla, Raphael Soyer and Georges Schreiber.
The group of artists was invited to visit the set of the Oscar-nominated film over a period of several weeks during May 1940. Seemingly given free rein as to creative ideas, the scene that Wood chose to depict occurs towards the end of the film. From left to right, the actors featured within the piece are John Qualen, John Wayne, Barry Fitzgerald, Thomas Mitchell, Joe Sawyer, David Hughes and Jack Pennick. The men are arranged as seven slightly worse for wear sailors, showing a small moment of vulnerability whilst singing a teary-eyed familiar song in a pub setting.
An incredibly detailed work, Wood managed to achieve such fine detail by using photographs and film stills at every stage of the painting process. Avid film buffs might notice that Grant has changed the composition slightly compared to the actual scene, with this lower vantage point aiming to reproduce the view that the movie-going audience might have had.
With the table edge being drawn at eye level, the actors depicted appear to completely tower over the scene, very much mirroring the overall screen presence that somebody like John Wayne enjoyed through his legend-creating career. Reflecting on Sentimental Ballad, Wood was once quoted as calling it the "most ambitious painting he ever attempted", and you can certainly see the influence of one of his great inspirations Jan van Eyck in the clarity of the technique used.
Though it was originally commissioned purely for the purposes of marketing a motion picture release of the time, Sentimental Ballad was incredibly well received in the press, and as a result, the painting was selected to be sent on a tour of appropriate American museums in the aftermath of other The Long Voyage Home obligations. As of 2022, Sentimental Ballad is permanently housed at the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, Connecticut.