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Modern Artist: Thomas Hart Benton
Although originally a modernist, Thomas Hart Benton emerged in the 1920's as one of the leading proponents of Regionalism. He favored American themes and a representational style which blended modern and academic-even classical- aesthetics. A flamboyant, hard-drinking and opinionated character, Benton alienated himself from the East coast art establishment, even while his gestural style and robust persona undoubtedly influenced many of his students at the Art Students League-many of whom eventually turned to Abstract Expressionism. His most famous student was Jackson Pollock.

Key Ideas / Information
  • Benton's works focused on rural, everyday American subject matter.
  • The Regionalists - Thomas Hart Benton in particular - paved the way for the Abstract Expressionists.
  • Benton's most famous student was Jackson Pollock.

Born in Neosho, Missouri in 1889, Thomas Hart Benton was the son of a well known Missouri politician and the grandson of Missouri's first senator. He was expected to follow in his father and grandfather's footsteps, but his interest in art proved inexorable. At the age of 17 he worked as a cartoonist for the local paper. Escaping the confines of small town life and the stifling expectations of his family, Benton eventually moved to Chicago where he enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Early Training
Benton spent the years 1907-08 studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, under the guidance of Frederick Oswald. In 1909, like so many young American artists before him, Benton moved to Paris where he studied at the Academie Julianne and the Academie Collarossi. While in Paris, he became acquainted with the Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, whose narrative murals would prove highly influential on Benton's regionalist work; and the American, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, the founder of Synchromism. Upon returning to the United States, Benton settled in New York City. He experimented with several modern styles including the aforementioned Synchromism, a style which stressed the musical qualities of color. A fire broke out in his studio, however, destroying much of his work from that period.

Mature Period
Stationed at Norfolk Naval Base, Benton served as an architectural draftsman for the Navy during World War I. In his free time he read American history and sketched local genre scenes. Up until that time he had struggled to find an artistic identity. In depicting scenes of everyday life in a representational format, however, Benton had finally found his true calling. Upon returning to New York in 1919 he was commissioned to create a mural for the New School of Social Research. Playing off his interest in American history, Benton chose the American Historical Epic as a theme; he completed the first half in 1920. In 1924 he moved back to Missouri to care for his dying father and whilst there further devoted himself to depicting rural American themes. In 1926 he completed the second half of his American Historical Epic mural. Now completed, the mural garnered popular acclaim and initiated a renewed interest in mural painting. The work also catapulted Benton into the public eye. Along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, Benton was heralded as one of the leaders of the Regionalist movement. Despite his general popularity, critics tended to downplay Benton's artistic talents, disapproving of his allegedly provincial aesthetics and subject matter and his unabashed rejection of abstraction.

In 1925 Benton was offered a teaching post at the New York Art Students League. He would remain in that position until 1935. While there, he taught some of the early practitioners of Abstract Expressionism. Among his students were Charles Green Shaw, Charles Pollock (brother of Jackson Pollock), and Jackson Pollock himself, among numerous others.

The 1930s proved fruitful for Benton. In 1932 he completed the Arts of Life in American mural for the Whitney Museum of American Art's library, and in 1933 he completed a series of 22 mural panels titled the Cultural and Industrial History of Indiana for the University of Indiana, Bloomington. Attesting to his widespread popularity, Benton was even 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 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.

During the late 1930s Benton completed numerous murals and single works 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 top artists. Abstract Expressionism was taking hold as the new force in the American art world. Ironically, while Benton was eclipsed by the practitioners of Abstract Expressionism, many had been his former students at the Art Students League.

Late Period and Death
Perhaps in reaction to his diminished spotlight, Benton criticized museums, at one point even suggesting that homosexuals had far too much influence in the direction museums were going. The comments only furthered to ostracize Benton from the 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. While in his studio on Martha's Vineyard-a popular retreat for Benton-he died at the age of 86.

Benton was one of the first American artists to combine modern aesthetic principles with long held academic constructs. He was also one of the first modern American artists to unabashedly portray domestic subjects and themes. In a sense, his work served as a bridge between the old world of the academic and the early modern with the uniquely American world of Abstract Expressionism.

While Benton has often been pigeonholed as "merely" the teacher of Jackson Pollock, the link warrants mention. Even while Pollock claimed that Benton served as a representational force to rebel against, Pollock's own works show compositional similarities with those by Benton. And certainly, the virility and machismo displayed in Benton's temperament seems to have been adopted by several members of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists.

Below are Benton's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.

El Greco
Diego Rivera
Morgan Russell
John Marin
Thomas Craven
John Steuart Curry
Grant Wood
Stanton Macdonald-Wright
Jose Clemente Orozco
American Modernist Painting
Thomas Hart Benton
Years Worked: 1889 - 1975
Jackson Pollock
Bill Hammond
American Regionalism

"Modern French painting is all right; it has produced many beautiful and interesting things, fully worthy of admiration, but it has also set up response habits among our artistic authorities which have worked against a free approach to other artistic forms."

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