Thomas Hart Benton (April 15, 1889 – January 19, 1975) was an American painter & muralist. Along with Grant Wood & John Steuart Curry, he was at the forefront of the Regionalist art movement. It is very difficult to see the details of large murals in the obviously limited blog format, but I will post them anyway, & you may search out larger depictions for yourselves.
Benton's fluid, almost sculpted paintings showed everyday scenes of life in the United States. Though his work is strongly associated with the Midwest, he painted scores of works of New York City, where he lived for more than 20 years; Martha’s Vineyard, where he summered for much of his adult life; the American South; and the American West.
Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri, into an influential family of politicians & powerbrokers. Benton's father, Maecenas Benton, was a lawyer & United States congressman. His namesake, great-uncle Thomas Hart Benton, was one of the first two United States Senators elected from Missouri. As a result of his father's political career, Benton spent his childhood shuttling between Washington D.C. & Missouri, spending one year at Western Military Academy in 1905-06, immersing him in 3 distinctly different cultures. His murals deal with those worlds of American politics; of our military in 2 world wars; & of rural & industrial America with its depression & its racism.
Benton rebelled against his father's grooming him for a future political career, & preferred to develop his interest in art. As a teenager, he worked as a cartoonist for the Joplin American newspaper, in Joplin, Missouri.
In 1907, Benton enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, but left for Paris in 1909 to continue his art education at the Académie Julian. In Paris, Benton met other North American artists, such as the Mexican Diego Rivera & Stanton Macdonald-Wright, an advocate of Synchromism.
After studying in Europe, Benton moved to New York City in 1913 & resumed painting. During World War I, he served in the U.S. Navy & was stationed at Norfolk, Virginia. His war-related work had an enduring effect on his style. He was directed to make drawings & illustrations of shipyard work & life; the requirement for realistic documentation strongly affected his later style. Later in the war, classified as a camoufleur, Benton was assigned to draw camouflaged ships that came into Norfolk harbor, so that they might be identified by others later.
In 1922, while living in New York, Benton met & married Rita Piacenza, an Italian immigrant. They met while Benton was teaching art classes for a neighborhood organization in New York City, where she was one of his students. The couple had a son, Thomas Piacenza Benton, born in 1926, & a daughter, Jessie Benton, born in 1939. They were married for 53 years, until Thomas's death in 1975. Rita died 10 weeks after her husband.
On his return to New York in the early 1920s, Benton declared himself an "enemy of modernism." He began the naturalistic & representational work today known as Regionalism. He expanded the scale of his Regionalist works, culminating in his America Today murals at the New School for Social Research in 1930-31. These now hang in the lobby of the AXA building at 1290 Sixth Avenue in New York City.
During the Great Depression, in 1932 Benton broke through to the mainstream. A relative unknown, he won a commission to paint the murals of Indiana life that were the state's contribution to the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, Illinois.
In December of 1932, Benton arrived in Indianapolis to begin studying the history of Indiana; planning the painting; & doing preliminary drafting on long strips of paper. Early in 1933, Benton began to travel around Indiana with an eye to capturing not just the grand sweep of its history, but also the homey details that form the backdrop of that history. Benton made heavy use of “real people” as models in painting the figures filling the mural. Benton discussed his aesthetic in his essay “A Dream Fulfilled,” in which he observes that “History was not a scholarly study for me but a drama.”
The Indiana Murals stirred controversy; Benton painted everyday people, but he included a portrayal of the state's history that included some aspects which people did not want publicized. For instance, his work was criticized by some for portraying Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members in full regalia. The mural panels are displayed at Indiana University in Bloomington, with the majority hung in the "Hall of Murals" at Indiana University Auditorium. Four additional panels are displayed in the former University Theatre (now the Indiana Cinema) connected to the Auditorium. Two panels, including the one with images of the KKK, are located in a lecture classroom at Woodburn Hall.
This move, away from both the avante garde and classical public art, resulted in Benton being considered both reactionary and radical. His response to the furor caused by his 1931 mural in the New School for Social Research sums up his early career succinctly, if not entirely accurately: “If not famous, I was at least notorious.” He was soon to be famous, in some part because of the Indiana Murals. By 1934, he was on the cover of Time magazine.
In 1932, Benton also painted The Arts of Life in America, a set of large murals for an early site of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Major panels include Arts of the City, Arts of the West, Arts of the South & Indian Arts. Five of the panels were purchased by the New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut, in 1953 & are on view there.
On December 24, 1934, Benton was featured on one of the earliest color covers of Time magazine. Benton’s work was featured along with that of fellow Midwesterners Grant Wood & John Steuart Curry in an article entitled “The U.S. Scene”. The trio were featured as the new heroes of American art, & Regionalism was shown as a significant art movement.
In 1935, after he had "alienated both the left-leaning community of artists with his disregard for politics & the larger New York-Paris art world with what was considered his folksy style" Benton left the artistic debates of New York for Missouri. He was commissioned to create a mural for the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. In A Social History of Missouri he included subjects of slavery, the Missouri outlaw Jesse James & political boss Tom Pendergast. With his return to Missouri, Benton embraced the Regionalist art movement.
He settled in Kansas City, Missouri & accepted a teaching job at the Kansas City Art Institute. Kansas City afforded Benton greater access to rural America, which was changing rapidly. In the late 1930s, he created some of his best-known work, including the iconic allegorical nude Persephone, which for a while hung in Billy Rose’s nightclub, the Diamond Horseshoe. It is now held by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
In 1937, Benton published his critically acclaimed autobiography, An Artist in America. The writer Sinclair Lewis said: “Here’s a rare thing, a painter who can write.”
Benton taught at the Art Students League of New York from 1926 to 1935 & at the Kansas City Art Institute from 1935 to 1941. His most famous student, Jackson Pollock, whom he mentored in the Art Students League, would go on to found the Abstract Expressionist movement. Jackson Pollock often said that Benton's traditional teachings gave him something to rebel against.
Even though Benton had teaching positions during the Great Depression of the 1930s, it was a difficult time in the United States. During this 2012 presidential election period, there is alot of discussion about
the economy. Some compare the period of economic downturn, which began in
2007-8 as the the last presidency ended & the present one began, to the
Great Depression of the 1930s. To compound the present situation, we are
experiencing a drought in much of the country, just as we did in the 1930s.
In 1941, Benton was dismissed from the Art Institute, after he called the typical art museum, "a graveyard run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists & a swing in his gait;" he had made further disparaging references to what he said was the excessive influence of homosexuals in the art world.
During World War II, in addition to his paintings, Benton created a series titled The Year of Peril, which portrayed the threat to American ideals by fascism & Nazism. The prints were widely distributed. Following the war, Regionalism fell from favor, eclipsed by the rise of Abstract Expressionism. Benton remained active for another 30 years, but his work portrayed less social commentary & showed bucolic images of pre-industrial farmlands.
He painted a number of murals, including Lincoln (1953), Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri; Trading At Westport Landing (1956), for The River Club in Kansas City; Father Hennepin at Niagara Falls (1961) for the Power Authority of the State of New York; Turn of the Century, Joplin (1972) in Joplin; & Independence & the Opening of The West, for the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence. His work on the Truman Library mural initiated a friendship with the former U.S. President that lasted for the rest of their lives.
Benton died in 1975 at work in his studio, just as he completed his final mural, The Sources of Country Music, for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee.
One of the important pieces of primary sources about Benton is an oral history interview that Benton did in Kansas City, Missouri, April 21, 1964. Milton Perry interviewed Benton for the Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, Missouri.
1964 MILTON PERRY: Why did you, yourself, go into mural painting?
1964 THOMAS HART BENTON: When I came out of the Navy after the First World War, I made up my mind that I wasn't going to be just a studio painter, a pattern maker in the fashion then dominating the art world--as it still does. I began to think of returning to the painting of subjects, subjects with meanings, which people in general might be interested in. This led to an idea of painting a history of the United States on mural size canvasses. I started this project in 1919 and exhibited the results, year by year, at the Architectural League in New York, I became known as the mural painter without walls because I couldn't get any commissions from the architects. However in 1930 I did get a wall at the New School for Social Research in New York. I was commissioned to paint a mural there on "Contemporary America". After the one mural commission followed another. In the end I began to think more as a muralist than an easel painter.
1964 MILTON PERRY: You have just said that you looked for subjects which might have a meaning for people in general. Does that indicate that you used your art to express other than artistic meanings--to illustrate ideas, for instance, for people other than yourself? How do you feel about artists who use their art to express themselves? That is what artists are supposed to be most concerned with isn't it?
1964 THOMAS HART BENTON: Milton, I don't think an artist can help but express himself. Anything he does automatically expresses his inner character and his mind. For that reason the less conscious attention he gives to his feelings--to his inner self--the better off he is. Of course, the modern artist has been thrown back on himself for well over a hundred years because there has been so little public usage of art. Art was separated from what I call public or socially sharable meanings when society quit using the artist to express them. The Church and the State ceased to be patrons of art. The wealth of the old aristocracies was dissipated and that patronage was lost. So the artist came to live and carry on his activities apart from society in general. It is natural that he would tend to turn inwards, to his own private feelings, for inspiration. But I am sure that is not quite healthy, People who spend a lot of time looking into themselves are not psychologically healthy--especially if they keep it up for a long time. The artist is surely no different in this respect.
1964 THOMAS HART BENTON: It appears today, with the new interest in art which seems to be growing in society, that the position of the artist may change. I think he should quit looking into himself and turn outwards and see how he can take advantage of that change--if it is really occurring.
1964 THOMAS HART BENTON: One of the ways he could do that is pay more attention to public meanings--meanings that people in general can share and less attention to his private aesthetic meanings which they cannot wholly share without special training.
1964 MILTON PERRY: Well, Tom, you have certainly done that with the Truman mural. People in general are interested. They have been coming in here by the thousands ever since you finished it. But another question. In your opinion how does the Truman mural compare with the other murals you have done--say like the one in our State Capital, Jefferson City?
1964 THOMAS HART BENTON: That question has been asked me many times. But I can't answer it. I can't judge my own work. Another question people ask is, "Among all the paintings you have made which is your favorite?"---I always say it's the one I am working on. And that's the truth. I really don't know which of my works is the better. And I don't care. Anyhow--and in the end, decisions about that will be made by the people who look at these works. Following up what I said a little before, it is not the artist, but the interested spectators who finally determine the values of works of art. I'll let my case rest with them. As a matter of fact, I have no other choice.
1964 MILTON PERRY: But you did have a sort of message to the viewers of the mural, didn't you? Didn't you want the mural to say to them something you had in mind?
1964 THOMAS HART BENTON: Yes. I did want them to get the sense that America was made, built up into the powerful country it has become, very largely by the actions of the common people spreading out over the frontiers--on their own and without any kind of official prompting. The mural was conceived as a folk story and, if it has a deliverable message, that would be about the pre-eminence of the folk in the development of our country. But as I said just now about the values of a work of art being finally determined by its spectators so also will its meanings be finally determined. And that is all right. It's not what's in the artist's mind that is important, but what his art raises in the spectator's mind--that's what counts in the long run.