Thomas Hart Benton
American Painter and Muralist
Born: April 15, 1889 - Neosho, Missouri
Died: January 19, 1975, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
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"I have a sort of inner conviction that for all the possible limitations of my mind and the disturbing effects of my processes, for all the contradicting struggles and failures I have gone through, I have come to something that is in the image of America and the American people of my time."
Thomas Hart Benton was one of America's most popular and heavily patronized modern artists during the decades leading up to World War II, and his murals were especially acclaimed. Along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, Benton gained artistic fame as a Regionalist painter, depicting the people and culture of the American Midwest, in particular his native state of Missouri. While his subjects were primarily based in America's heartland, he lived in New York City for twenty years. Considered by many to be reactionary due to his outspoken and inflammatory diatribes against the art world, Benton, a populist, did in fact boldly use his art to protest the KKK, lynching, and fascism during the 1930s and 1940s. Benton was also an admired teacher at New York's Art Students League, offering students grounding in European art history, as well as an awareness of European modernism. The advent of Abstract Expressionism has all but eclipsed Benton's importance in the history of modern art.
Most Important Art
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City Building (Part of American Today Mural) (1930)
Commissioned by New York City's innovative and progressive New School for Social Research, Benton's America Today murals joyfully celebrate an America before the full impact of the Great Depression had been realized. Here, a multi-racial labor force - this in itself is modern and utopian image because of heavily segregated labor in America - busily build the city. Emphasis is placed on the producer, rather than on material consumption. Benton pictures high skyscrapers, which were markers of the new modern city, urbanism, and industrialism. The presence of a ship recalls Benton's earlier work for the US Navy, and reminds us of New York's prominence as a port city. Benton applied wood molding to the canvas to separate one vignette from the other, which gives a modern, cinematic quality to the overall composition. (Benton had earlier worked in the film industry as well.) His rapid compositional shifts in depth between the foreground and deep background recall cinematic effects. In addition to Benton's murals, the New School also commissioned the great Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco to paint a suite of frescoes which complement Benton's tribute to the national by focusing on the international. Standing in front of this monumental and brightly colored image, one senses the city humming and pulsating with new energy.
Distemper, egg tempera, and oil glaze on linen - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY
Thomas Hart Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri in 1889 into a family of prominent politicians committed to political republicanism and populism. His father was a congressman, and his great-uncle, for whom he was named, was an important US senator. Benton later recalled that, "Politics was the core of our family life." Through his art, in particular his murals, Benton sought to continue his family's support of nineteenth-century political republicanism, upholding the producers of society, and scornful of big business and big banks. Expected to follow his family's well-trodden path, instead, with his mother's encouragement he chose to study art. Starting at age seventeen he worked as a cartoonist for a local paper. Escaping the confines of small town life and rebelling against the stifling expectations of his family, Benton moved to Chicago where he enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago in 1907, studying under Frederick Oswald.
After two years at the Art Institute, in 1909, he chose the familiar path traveled by numerous other American artists and relocated to Paris to study at the famed Academie Julian. While in Paris, he became acquainted with the great Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, and also, was greatly inspired by the American painter Stanton Macdonald-Wright, the founder of Synchromism. Benton settled in New York City upon his return in 1913, the same year as the famed Armory Show. In the 1910s, he experimented with several modern styles including Synchromism, which stressed the musical qualities of color. He was greatly influenced by the compositional strategies of Cezanne. A fire that broke out in his studio destroyed much of his early experimentations and work.
During World War I, Benton was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, where he served as an architectural draftsman and painted camouflage for the Navy. In his free time he read American history and sketched local scenes of shipyard life. The Navy's requirement for artistic realism and documentation strongly impacted on his later style. Up until this time he had struggled to find an artistic identity. It was his turn to depictions of everyday life of American and its people in a representational style that announced Benton's emergence as a mature artist. Because of his interest in American history and his family's deep roots in Missouri, Benton soon chose the American Historical Epic as a theme; his elongated figuration showing the influence of El Greco.
Upon his return to New York in the early 1920s, he unabashedly announced himself to be an "enemy of modernism," while simultaneously incorporating modernist aesthetics into his work. Like many artists during the 1920s and 30s, Benton was involved with the political left and leftist artists' groups such as the John Reed Club. His early work as a muralist capitulated Benton into the public eye. In 1930, New York's famed New School of Social Research commissioned Benton to paint a suite of murals entitled "American Today"; these now hang at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, Benton was heralded as one of the leaders of the Regionalist movement. The Regionalists were championed by Thomas Craven, a nativist and rabid anti-Semite, whose own bigoted views worked against the Regionalists. Despite his popularity, some critics downplayed Benton's artistic talents, disapproving of his allegedly provincial aesthetics and subject matter and his unabashed rejection of abstraction.
In 1925 the New York Art Students League hired Benton as an instructor, a post he held for ten years. While there, he taught some of the early practitioners of Abstract Expressionism. Among his students was Jackson Pollock, who stayed in contact with Benton for many years despite their aesthetic differences. Benton schooled Pollock in the rudiments of drawing and also, about the importance of the Old Masters. Benton expansive murals, along with those of Jose Clemente Orozco, may have influenced the large scale of Pollock's later drip paintings. The undulating rhythm within Pollock's early abstract works, emanating from a central vortex, relates back to lessons taught by Benton.
The 1930s proved fruitful for Benton. In 1932 he completed the Arts of Life in America murals for the Whitney Museum of American Art's library (now at the New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut), and in 1933 he completed a series of twenty-two mural panels titled the Cultural and Industrial History of Indiana, for the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago; these are now housed at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. In one panel, the artist defiantly portrayed the KKK's prominence in Indiana, which drew harsh criticism aimed at Benton. Attesting to his widespread popularity, Benton was featured on the cover of the December 24, 1934 issue of Time magazine. A year later, Benton-then at the height of his fame, took the opportunity to write an article in which he spuriously denounced the New York critics who had previously spurned him. That same year Benton abandoned New York in favor of a teaching position at the Kansas City Art Institute, marking his return to the Midwest.
During the late 1930s Benton completed numerous murals and individual canvases for various institutions across the country. Unfortunately, by the close of World War II, interest in Regionalism had waned and Benton could no longer lay claim to being one of America's vanguard artists. Abstract Expressionism was taking hold as the new force in the American art world.
Late Years and Death
Perhaps in reaction to his diminished spotlight, Benton was quite brash and vocal in his negative assessments of museums and their staffs, which only served to further ostracize him from the New York art world. Benton's creative output, however, was not to be stifled. He produced numerous works during the last decades of his life; only now his subject matter had shifted from large, epic narrative works, to simple landscapes and rural scenes. Benton still received commissions during his eighties. He died at the age of eighty-six while in his studio on his beloved Martha's Vineyard. His wife, Rita, died ten days later.
Benton was one of the first American artists to combine modern aesthetic principles with long held academic constructs. Working as a Regionalist, he embraced the Midwest and its people as currency for his art work. His mural commissions predate the start of the New Deal Arts Program, and so, were influential to nascent muralists who likewise looked to the American scene and its people. Benton never worked for the federal projects thanks to his many mural commissions, and for his numerous illustrations for industry, publishing, and advertisements.
Often Benton is reduced to the role of "merely" being Jackson Pollock's teacher and the shift between them explained as generational progress. However, while Pollock claimed in his Oedipal battle with Benton that the elder artist served just as a force to rebel against, Pollock's own works show compositional similarities with those by Benton. Benton's characteristic machismo and hard-drinking was echoed later by Pollock, and several other male artists in the New York School of Abstract Expressionists. We would be hard-pressed to suggest a direct lineage of artists who followed in Benton's steps. Instead, we can consider Benton as having validated and encouraged the art of realism and representation.
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Thomas Hart Benton
| Thomas Hart Benton, a portrait |
By Polly Burroughs
| Thomas Hart Benton and the American South |
By J. Richard Gruber
| Renegade Regionalists: The Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry |
By James M. Dennis
| A Panorama Starring a Cast of Stereotypes |
By Ken Johnson
| Review/Art: A Look Back at Thomas Hart Benton |
By Michael Brenson
| Oral history interview of Thomas Hart Benton, conducted by Milton F. Perry |
Harry S. Truman Library & Museum