Thomas Hart Benton (painter)

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Thomas Hart Benton
Tom benton.jpg
Benton in 1935
Born(1889-04-15)April 15, 1889
DiedJanuary 19, 1975(1975-01-19) (aged 85)
Known for Painting
Notable work
America Today  (1930-31), Indiana Murals (1933), Social History of Missouri (1936), Persephone  (1938-39) [3]
Movement Regionalism, Social Realism, American modernism, American realism, Synchromism

Thomas Hart Benton (April 15, 1889 – January 19, 1975) was an American painter and muralist. Along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, he was at the forefront of the Regionalist art movement. His fluid, sculpted figures in his paintings showed everyday people in scenes of life in the United States. His work is strongly associated with the Midwestern United States, where he was born and called home for most of his life. He also studied in Paris, lived in New York City for more than 20 years and painted scores of works there, summered for 50 years on Martha's Vineyard off the New England coast, and also painted scenes of the American South and West.

Grant Wood American painter

Grant DeVolson Wood was an American painter best known for his paintings depicting the rural American Midwest, particularly American Gothic (1930), which has become an iconic painting of the 20th century.

John Steuart Curry American painter

John Steuart Curry was an American painter whose career spanned the years from 1924 until his death. He was noted for his paintings depicting life in his home state, Kansas. Along with Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, he was hailed as one of the three great painters of American Regionalism of the first half of the twentieth century.

Midwestern United States region that includes parts of Canada and the United States

The Midwestern United States, also referred to as the American Midwest, Middle West, or simply the Midwest, is one of four census regions of the United States Census Bureau. It occupies the northern central part of the United States. It was officially named the North Central Region by the Census Bureau until 1984. It is located between the Northeastern United States and the Western United States, with Canada to its north and the Southern United States to its south.


Early life and education

Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri, into an influential family of politicians. He had two younger sisters, Mary and Mildred, and a younger brother, Nathaniel. [4] His mother was Elizabeth Wise Benton and his father, Colonel Maecenas Benton, was a lawyer and four times elected as U.S. congressman. Known as the "little giant of the Ozarks", Maecenas named his son after his own great-uncle, [5] Thomas Hart Benton, one of the first two United States Senators elected from Missouri. [4] Given his father's political career, Benton spent his childhood shuttling between Washington, D.C. and Missouri. His father sent him to Western Military Academy in 1905-06, hoping to shape him for a political career. Growing up in two different cultures, Benton rebelled against his father's plans. He wanted to develop his interest in art, which his mother supported. As a teenager, he worked as a cartoonist for the Joplin American newspaper, in Joplin, Missouri. [6]

Neosho, Missouri City in Missouri, United States

Neosho is the most populous city in Newton County, Missouri, United States, which it serves as the county seat. With a population of 11,835 as of the 2010 census, the city is a part of the Joplin, Missouri Metropolitan Statistical Area, a region with an estimated 176,849 (2011) residents. Neosho lies on the western edge of the Ozarks.

United States House of Representatives lower house of the United States Congress

The United States House of Representatives is the lower chamber of the United States Congress, the Senate being the upper chamber. Together they compose the legislature of the United States.

Ozarks Highland region in central-southern United States

The Ozarks, also called the Ozark Mountains or Ozark Plateau, is a physiographic region in the U.S. states of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and extreme southeastern Kansas. The Ozarks cover a significant portion of northern Arkansas and most of the southern half of Missouri, extending from Interstate 40 in Arkansas to the Interstate 70 in central Missouri.

With his mother's encouragement, in 1907 Benton enrolled at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago. Two years later, he moved to Paris in 1909 to continue his art education at the Académie Julian. [7] His mother supported him financially and emotionally to work at art until he married in his early 30s. His sister Mildred said, "My mother was a great power in his growing up." [4] In Paris, Benton met other North American artists, such as the Mexican Diego Rivera and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, an advocate of Synchromism. Influenced by the latter, Benton subsequently adopted a Synchromist style. [8]

Académie Julian Art school in Paris, France

The Académie Julian was a private art school for painting and sculpture founded in Paris, France, in 1867 by French painter and teacher Rodolphe Julian (1839–1907) that was active from 1868 through 1968. It remained famous for the number and quality of artists who attended during the great period of effervescence in the arts in the early twentieth century. After 1968, it integrated with ESAG Penninghen.

Diego Rivera Mexican painter and muralist

Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez, known as Diego Rivera was a prominent Mexican painter. His large frescoes helped establish the Mexican mural movement in Mexican art. Between 1922 and 1953, Rivera painted murals in, among other places, Mexico City, Chapingo, Cuernavaca, San Francisco, Detroit, and New York City. In 1931, a retrospective exhibition of his works was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Rivera had a volatile marriage with fellow Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Stanton Macdonald-Wright American artist

Stanton MacDonald-Wright, was a modern American artist. He was a co-founder of Synchromism, an early abstract, color-based mode of painting, which was the first American avant-garde art movement to receive international attention.

Early career and World War I

Camouflage pattern of the British ship S.S. Alban as documented by Thomas Hart Benton S.S. Alban camouflage by Thomas Hart Benton.jpg
Camouflage pattern of the British ship S.S. Alban as documented by Thomas Hart Benton

After studying in Europe, Benton moved to New York City in 1912 and resumed painting. During World War I, he served in the U.S. Navy and was stationed at Norfolk, Virginia. His war-related work had an enduring effect on his style. He was directed to make drawings and illustrations of shipyard work and life, and this requirement for realistic documentation strongly affected his later style. Later in the war, classified as a "camoufleur," Benton drew the camouflaged ships that entered Norfolk harbor. [9] His work was required for several reasons: to ensure that U.S. ship painters were correctly applying the camouflage schemes, to aid in identifying U.S. ships that might later be lost, and to have records of the ship camouflage of other Allied navies. Benton later said that his work for the Navy "was the most important thing, so far, I had ever done for myself as an artist." [10]

New York City Largest city in the United States

The City of New York, usually called either New York City (NYC) or simply New York (NY), is the most populous city in the United States. With an estimated 2017 population of 8,622,698 distributed over a land area of about 302.6 square miles (784 km2), New York is also the most densely populated major city in the United States. Located at the southern tip of the state of New York, the city is the center of the New York metropolitan area, the largest metropolitan area in the world by urban landmass and one of the world's most populous megacities, with an estimated 20,320,876 people in its 2017 Metropolitan Statistical Area and 23,876,155 residents in its Combined Statistical Area. A global power city, New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, and exerts a significant impact upon commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism, art, fashion, and sports. The city's fast pace has inspired the term New York minute. Home to the headquarters of the United Nations, New York is an important center for international diplomacy.

World War I 1914–1918 global war originating in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as "the war to end all wars", it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.

Norfolk, Virginia Independent city in Virginia, United States

Norfolk is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States. At the 2010 census, the population was 242,803; in 2017, the population was estimated to be 244,703 making it the second-most populous city in Virginia after neighboring Virginia Beach.

People of Chilmark (Figure Composition), 1920, in the Hirshhorn Museum collection in Washington, D.C. People-of-Chilmark-Benton-1920-lrg.jpg
People of Chilmark (Figure Composition), 1920, in the Hirshhorn Museum collection in Washington, D.C.

Marriage and family

At age 33, Benton married Rita Piacenza, an Italian immigrant, in 1922. 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, and a daughter, Jessie Benton, born in 1939. They were married for almost 53 years until Thomas' death in 1975. Rita died eleven weeks after her husband.

Later career

Dedication to Regionalism

In 1924, Benton depicted three landmarks in New York City's Madison Square within his painting New York, Early Twenties. New York, Early 20s.jpg
In 1924, Benton depicted three landmarks in New York City's Madison Square within his painting New York, Early Twenties.

On his return to New York in the early 1920s, Benton declared himself an "enemy of modernism"; he began the naturalistic and representational work today known as Regionalism. Benton was active in leftist politics. He expanded the scale of his Regionalist works, culminating in his America Today murals at the New School for Social Research in 1930-31. In 1984 the murals were purchased and restored by AXA Equitable to hang in the lobby of the AXA Equitable Tower at 1290 Sixth Avenue in New York City. [11] In December 2012 AXA donated the murals to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. [12] The Met's exhibition, "Thomas Hart Benton's America Today Mural Rediscovered." [13] ran until April 19, 2015. They were described as showing how Benton absorbed and used the influence of the Greek artist El Greco. [14]

<i>America Today</i> painting by Thomas Hart Benton

America Today is a mural comprising ten canvas panels, painted with egg tempera in 1930–1931 by the American painter Thomas Hart Benton. It provides a panorama of American life throughout the 1920s, based on Benton's extensive travels in the country. Originally commissioned for The New School for Social Research, it has belonged to the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 2012.

El Greco Greek painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance (1541 – 1614)

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, most widely known as El Greco, was a painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance. "El Greco" was a nickname, a reference to his Greek origin, and the artist normally signed his paintings with his full birth name in Greek letters, Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος, Doménikos Theotokópoulos, often adding the word Κρής Krēs, Cretan.

Benton broke through to the mainstream in 1932. A relative unknown, he won a commission to paint the murals of Indiana life planned by the state in the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. The Indiana Murals stirred controversy; Benton painted everyday people, and included a portrayal of events in the state's history which some people did not want publicized. Critics attacked his work for showing Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members in full regalia. [15] The KKK reached its peak membership in 1925. In Indiana, 30% of adult males were estimated to be members of the Klan, and in 1924 KKK members were elected as governor, and to other political offices. [16]

Indiana State of the United States of America

Indiana is a U.S. state located in the Midwestern and Great Lakes regions of North America. Indiana is the 38th largest by area and the 17th most populous of the 50 United States. Its capital and largest city is Indianapolis. Indiana was admitted to the United States as the 19th U.S. state on December 11, 1816. Indiana borders Lake Michigan to the northwest, Michigan to the north, Ohio to the east, Kentucky to the south and southeast, and Illinois to the west.

Century of Progress 1933 world exhibition in Chicago, Illinois, USA

A Century of Progress International Exposition was a World's Fair registered under the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), which was held in Chicago, as The Chicago World's Fair, from 1933 to 1934 to celebrate the city's centennial. The theme of the fair was technological innovation. The fair's motto was "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts", giving out a message that science and American life were wedded. Its architectural symbol was the Sky Ride, a transporter bridge perpendicular to the shore on which one could ride from one side of the fair to the other.

Chicago City in Illinois, United States

Chicago, officially the City of Chicago, is the most populous city in Illinois, as well as the third most populous city in the United States. With an estimated population of 2,716,450 (2017), it is the most populous city in the Midwest. Chicago is the principal city of the Chicago metropolitan area, often referred to as Chicagoland, and the county seat of Cook County, the second most populous county in the United States. The metropolitan area, at nearly 10 million people, is the third-largest in the United States, and the fourth largest in North America and the third largest metropolitan area in the world by land area.

These mural panels are now displayed at Indiana University in Bloomington, with the majority hung in the "Hall of Murals" at the 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. [15]

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. [17] Major panels include Arts of the City, Arts of the West, Arts of the South and Indian Arts. [18] In 1953 five of the panels were purchased by the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut, and have since been displayed there.

On December 24, 1934, Benton was featured on one of the earliest color covers of Time magazine. [19] Benton's work was featured along with that of fellow Midwesterners Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry in an article entitled "The U.S. Scene". The trio were featured as the new heroes of American art, and Regionalism was described as a significant art movement. [20]

In 1935, after he had "alienated both the left-leaning community of artists with his disregard for politics and the larger New York-Paris art world with what was considered his folksy style", [4] Benton left the artistic debates of New York for his native Missouri. He was commissioned to create a mural for the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. A Social History of Missouri is perhaps Benton’s greatest work. In an interview in 1973, he said, "If I have any right to make judgments, I would say that the Missouri mural was my best work". [21] As with his earlier work, controversy arose over his portrayal of the state's history, as he included the subjects of slavery, the Missouri outlaw Jesse James, and the political boss Tom Pendergast. With his return to Missouri, Benton embraced the Regionalist art movement.

He settled in Kansas City and accepted a teaching job at the Kansas City Art Institute. This base afforded Benton greater access to rural America, which was changing rapidly. Because of his Populist political upbringing, Benton's sympathy was with the working class and the small farmer, unable to gain material advantage despite the Industrial Revolution.[ citation needed ] His works often show the melancholy, desperation and beauty of small-town life.[ citation needed ] In the late 1930s, he created some of his best-known work, including the allegorical nude Persephone. It was considered scandalous by the Kansas City Art Institute, and was borrowed by the showman Billy Rose, who hung it in his New York nightclub, the Diamond Horseshoe. [4] It is now held by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Karal Ann Marling, an art historian, says it is "one of the great works of American pornography." [4]

In 1937, Benton published his autobiography, An Artist in America, which was critically acclaimed. The writer Sinclair Lewis said of it: “Here’s a rare thing, a painter who can write.” [22] During this period, Benton also began to produce signed, limited edition lithographs, which were sold at $5.00 each through the Associated American Artists Galleries based in New York. [23]

Thomas Hart Benton - Achelous and Hercules - Smithsonian.jpg
Achelous and Hercules , a 1947 mural made for a Kansas City department store, now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Teaching career

Benton's autobiography indicates that his son was enrolled from age 3–9 at the City and Country School in New York in exchange for his teaching art there. [24] He included the school's founder, Caroline Pratt, in "City Activities with Dance Hall," one of the ten panels in America Today. [25]

Benton taught at the Art Students League of New York from 1926 to 1935 and at the Kansas City Art Institute from 1935 to 1941. His most famous student, Jackson Pollock, whom he mentored in the Art Students League, founded the Abstract Expressionist movement. Pollock often said that Benton's traditional teachings gave him something to rebel against. [26] With another of his students, Glen Rounds, who went on to become a prolific author and illustrator of children's books, Benton spent a summer touring the Western United States in the early 1930s. [27] [28]

Benton's students in New York and Kansas City included many painters who contributed significantly to American art. They included Pollock’s brother Charles Pollock, Eric Bransby, Charles Banks Wilson, Frederic James, Lamar Dodd, Reginald Marsh, Charles Green Shaw, Margot Peet, Jackson Lee Nesbitt, Roger Medearis, Glenn Gant, Fuller Potter, and Delmer J. Yoakum. [29] Benton also briefly taught Dennis Hopper at the Kansas City Art Institute; Hopper was later known for being an independent actor, filmmaker, and photographer. [30]

In 1941 Benton was dismissed from the Art Institute after he said the typical art museum was "a graveyard run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists and a swing in his gait." [31] He made additional disparaging references to what he said was the excessive influence of homosexuals (which he called "the third sex") in the art world. [31]

Later life

During World War II, Benton created a series titled The Year of Peril, which portrayed the threat to American ideals by fascism and Nazism. The prints were widely distributed. Following the war, Regionalism fell from favor, eclipsed by the rise of Abstract Expressionism. [32] Benton remained active for another 30 years, but his work included less contemporary social commentary and portrayed pre-industrial farmlands.

Benton was hired in 1940, along with eight other prominent American artists, to document dramatic scenes and characters during the production of the film The Long Voyage Home , a cinematic adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's plays. [33]

Benton was also an accomplished harmonica musician, recording an album for Decca Records in 1942 titled Saturday Night at Tom Benton's.

He continued to paint murals, including Lincoln (1953), for 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; Joplin at the Turn of the Century (1972) in Joplin; and Independence and the Opening of the West , for the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence. His commission for the Truman Library mural led to his developing 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, as he completed his final mural, The Sources of Country Music, for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee. [32]

Legacy and honors

Benton was elected into the National Academy of Design in 1954 as an Associate member, and became a full member in 1956.

Exterior of the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site BentexteriorHoriz.JPG
Exterior of the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site

In 1977, Benton's 2-1/2 story late-Victorian residence and carriage house studio in Kansas City was designated by Missouri as the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site. [34] The historic site has been preserved nearly unchanged from the time of his death; clothing, furniture, and paint brushes are still in place. Displaying 13 original works of his art, the house museum is open for guided tours.

Benton was the subject of the eponymous 1988 documentary, Thomas Hart Benton , directed by Ken Burns.


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  32. 1 2 "Thomas Hart Benton Biography". New Britain Museum of American Art. 2010. Retrieved September 15, 2011.
  33. Editor. "The Long Voyage Home". Retrieved 1 March 2018.
  34. "Kansas City Attractions: Thomas Hart Benton Home". Frommer's USA, 10th edition. The New York Times. 2007. ISBN   978-0-470-04726-2.[ dead link ]

Catalogs and monographs

Major museum exhibitions

Further reading