About Thomas Hart Benton
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. Though his work is strongly associated with the Midwest, he 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 the American West.
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, 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.
Early life and education
Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri, into an influential family of politicians and powerbrokers. Benton's father, Maecenas Benton, was a lawyer and U.S. 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. and Missouri, spending one year at Western Military Academy in 1905-06, and was part of two different cultures. Benton rebelled against his father's grooming him for a future political career, and 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 and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, an advocate of Synchromism. Benton subsequently adopted a Synchromist style from MacDonald-Wright's influence.
Early career and World War I
After studying in Europe, Benton moved to New York City in 1913 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 had to draw camouflaged ships that came into Norfolk harbor. 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."
Marriage and family
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 53 years until Thomas's death in 1975. Rita died ten weeks after her husband.
Dedication to Regionalism
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. These now hang in the lobby of the AXA building at 1290 Sixth Avenue in New York City. He was strongly influenced by the works of the Spanish artist El Greco.
Benton broke through to the mainstream in 1932. 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. 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. This was within a decade of the KKK's having reached its peak of 20th-century membership and political influence in the state. The mural panels are now 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.
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 and Indian Arts. Five of the panels were purchased by the New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut, in 1953 and 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 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.
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" 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. A Social History of Missouri is perhaps Benton’s greatest work. As with his earlier murals, there was controversy over his portrayal of history: he included subjects of slavery, the Missouri outlaw Jesse James and political boss Tom Pendergast. With his return to Missouri, Benton embraced the Regionalist art movement.
He settled in Kansas City, Missouri and accepted a teaching job at the Kansas City Art Institute. Kansas City afforded Benton greater access to rural America, which was changing rapidly. Benton's sympathy was with the working class and the small farmer, unable to gain material advantage despite the Industrial Revolution. His works often show the melancholy, desperation and beauty of small-town life. 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, he published his critically acclaimed autobiography, An Artist in America. The writer Sinclair Lewis said: “Here’s a rare thing, a painter who can write.” 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.
Benton as teacher
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, would diverge from Benton's style and found the Abstract Expressionist movement. Pollock often said that Benton's traditional teachings gave him something to rebel against.
Benton's students in New York and Kansas City included many painters who would make significant contributions to American art. They included Pollock’s brother Charles Pollock, 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. Benton also briefly taught Dennis Hopper at the Kansas City Art Institute; Hopper was later known for being a rebellious actor, filmmaker, and photographer.
Benton was dismissed from the Art Institute in 1941, after he called the typical art museum, "a graveyard run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists and a swing in his gait;" he had made further disparaging references to what he said was the excessive influence of homosexuals ("the third sex") in the art world.
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. Benton remained active for another 30 years, but his work portrayed less social commentary and 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; and Independence and 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.
Legacy and honors
In 1977, Benton's 2-1/2 story late-Victorian residence and carriage house studio in Kansas City was designated the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site. The site remains virtually unchanged from its appearance at 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, Thomas Hart (1951), An Artist in America, University of Kansas City Press.
Benton, Thomas Hart (1969), An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography, University Press of Kansas.
Catalogs and monographs
Benton, Thomas Hart; Craven, Thomas (1939), Thomas Hart Benton: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Works of Thomas Hart Benton, Spotlighting the Important Periods during the Artist's Thirty-two Years of Painting, with an Examination of the Artist and His Work, Associated American Artists.
University of Kansas Museum of Art (1958), Thomas Hart Benton: A Retrospective Exhibition of the Works of the Noted Missouri Artist Presented under the Patronage of Harry S. Truman and Mrs. Truman of Independence, Missouri, April 12 to May 18, 1958.
Thomas Hart Benton, Artist's Timeline
Neosho City, Newton, Missouri