Thomas Hart Benton Life and Art Periods

"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 SYNOPSIS

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.

THOMAS HART BENTON KEY IDEAS

Benton's main contribution to twentieth-century American art might be his thematic emphasis on images of ordinary people and common lore. His expressive realism stands out for its exaggerated curvilinear forms and shapes, and bold use of key colors. By shifting attention away from New York and towards the Midwest, Benton expanded both the scope of possible artistic subject matter, and the potential public for American art.
In his paintings and prints, Benton was devoted to the evocations of sound and music as a method of communication. His interest in sound, often vernacular songs and instruments, as well as stump-speeches and dialogue, can be seen as relating back to his family's history in Missouri politics, where one often spoke of the voice of the people; Benton sought to keep this popular voice alive in his artwork. The artist, a self-taught and often performing harmonica player, was also a collector, cataloguer, transcriber, and distributor of popular music.
By the mid-1940s, Benton became infamous for his outlandish claims against art critics and museums, at one point going on a homophobic rant. With his strong ego and stubbornness, Benton became a rather isolated persona-non-grata, even amongst his own field.
Jackson Pollock was Benton's most ardent follower in the 1930s and his early work bears a strong similarity to that of his teacher in terms of style and subject matter. Rather than a complete break from Benton, Pollock's move towards pure abstraction is best seen as an aesthetic shift. The shift from Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism can also be read in relation to a broader cultural and political shift from New Deal reformist politics, to the Cold War post-atomic age.
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THOMAS HART BENTON BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Thomas Hart Benton Biography

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.

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Early Training

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.

Mature Period

Thomas Hart Benton Photo

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

Thomas Hart Benton Portrait

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.

THOMAS HART BENTON LEGACY

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.

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors
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THOMAS HART BENTON QUOTES

"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."

"It was obvious from the beginning that Pollock was a born artist. The only thing I taught him was how to drink a fifth a day."

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton Influences

Interactive chart with Thomas Hart Benton's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Michelangelo
Michelangelo
Michelangelo was a Renaissance artist working in Italy in the sixteenth century. Although first a sculptor, he is perhaps best known for his large-scale painted frescos in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Modern Art Information Michelangelo
El Greco
El Greco
El Greco was a sixteenth-century Greek-born painter, sculptor and architect, most often associated with the Spanish Renaissace and Mannerism of the Ventian Renaissance. As a master artist who employed highly expressive techniques, El Greco's paintings both confounded his contemporaries and influenced later movements like Expressionism and Cubism.

Modern Art Information El Greco
Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera was the principal actor in the Mexican Muralism movement and one of Mexico's greatest artists. His large-scale fresco cycles tell the histories of labor, industry, society, and other themes.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Diego Rivera
Morgan Russell
Morgan Russell
Morgan Russell was an American abstract artist and founder in 1913 of Synchromism, a movement that elaborated ideas about color and its relationship to shape and pattern.

Modern Art Information Morgan Russell
John Marin
John Marin
John Marin was an early American modernist associated with the circle of artists around Alfred Stieglitz and the 1913 Armory Show. His paintings and watercolors often depicted abstracted cityscapes and landscapes.

Modern Art Information John Marin
Thomas Craven
Thomas Craven
Thomas Craven was an extremely influential American art critic during the Depression. A frequent detractor of modernism, he advocated passionately on behalf of Regionalism and American painting more generally.

Modern Art Information Thomas Craven
John Steuart Curry
John Steuart Curry
John Steuart Curry was an American Regionalist painter and muralist who often depicted the outdoor events and landscapes of his native Kansas.

Modern Art Information John Steuart Curry
Grant Wood
Grant Wood
Grant Wood, painter of American Gothic and other iconic representations of American life, was one of the most well-known of the Regionalists, a group that focused on realist depictions of daily life in midwestern America.

Modern Art Information Grant Wood
Stanton Macdonald-Wright
Stanton Macdonald-Wright
Stanton Macdonald-Wright was an American abstract painter who, along with Morgan Russell, founded the Synchromist movement in 1912.

Modern Art Information Stanton Macdonald-Wright
Jose Clemente Orozco
Jose Clemente Orozco
Jose Clemente Orozco was a Mexican social realist painter who is best known for his large-scale murals of human toil, suffering, and the industrial age.

Modern Art Information Jose Clemente Orozco
Renaissance
Renaissance
In the Renaissance, artists rediscovered techniques like rational space, three-point perspective, and plastic forms. Paintings frequently emphasized the human figure, allegory, classical mythology, and Christian themes.

Modern Art Information Renaissance
Baroque
Baroque
Baroque art and architecture emerged in late sixteenth-century Europe after the Renaissance, and lasted into the eighteenth century. In contrast to the clarity and order of earlier art, it stressed theatrical atmosphere, dynamic flourishes, and myriad colors and textures.

Modern Art Information Baroque
American Modernist Painting
American Modernist Painting
American Modernist Painting began to coalesce with the Armory Show of 1913, and lasted through the Great Depression. American modernists were diverse, including Precisionists, scene painters, and abstractionists, and looked both to Europe and to homegrown styles for their influence.

Modern Art Information American Modernist Painting
Synchromism
Synchromism
Founded in 1912, Synchromism was an American art movement that aimed to create color "symphonies" by particular arrangements of shapes and hues. Based on musical principles, the resulting paintings were often abstract and dynamic.

Modern Art Information Synchromism
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jackson Pollock
Bill Hammond
Bill Hammond
Bill Hammond is a New Zealand painter whose surreal scenes and bird-like creatures are often compared to Hieronymous Bosch and the art of ancient Egypt.

Modern Art Information Bill Hammond
American Regionalism
American Regionalism
Regionalism emerged in 1930s as an alternative to the abstract and avant-garde veins of modern art. Executed in a realist style, it often depicted scenes of everyday rural life, and frequently featured allegories about land, labor, and American history.

Modern Art Information American Regionalism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Self-Portrait with Rita
Self-Portrait with Rita

Title: Self-Portrait with Rita (1922)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Painted in Martha's Vineyard, in this work Benton renounces his earlier experimentation in cubist-inspired abstractions. Standing bare chest alongside his scantily clad wife, Rita, Benton's self-portrait is among the most startling figure subjects of the early 1920s. Here, Benton classicized his own musculature, stressed the highly physical modern male body. The image of Rita conveys Benton's solid knowledge of sixteenth-century Italian art.


Oil on canvas - National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

City Building (Part of American Today Mural)
City Building (Part of American Today Mural)

Title: City Building (Part of American Today Mural) (1930)

Artwork Description & Analysis: 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

The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley
The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley

Title: The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley (1934)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The work illustrates an old Ozark folk song of the same name in which a man stabs his wife on account of her supposed infidelity, only to find out later that his suspicion was unfounded. This work is typical of Benton's devotion to sound and music-making in his painting career. Elements of Synchromism - the musical characteristics of color - are evident such as the radiant layered halo connecting the man and wife in the background, which suggests music resonating. Early works by Pollock echo the undulating forms and use of space evident here in his teacher's painting, and in fact, Pollock who was close to Benton and his family, modeled for the harmonica player in the foreground.


Egg tempera and oil on canvas - Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas

Frankie and Johnny, from The Social History of Missouri Murals
Frankie and Johnny, from The Social History of Missouri Murals

Title: Frankie and Johnny, from The Social History of Missouri Murals (1935)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Based upon a popular folk song that Benton felt was representative of Missouri lore and mythology, the tale of Frankie and Johnny might have in fact concerned an incident. Benton freezes the drama and its actors in mid-action as the gun at center fires a bullet. Benton's rhythmic composition is evident in the undulating line made up of the six figures. All the figures and action are heightened and exaggerated as if in a Baroque manner. The eye travels the length of the six characters in a curvilinear line typical of Benton's dynamic compositions and figures. Benton long depicted racial and ethnic minorities within his works, but at times was accused of creating racially stereotypical facial features. The bright note of red at center brings attention to this pivotal figure that creates the tumultuous action within the canvas.


Egg tempera on canvas

Susanna and the Elders
Susanna and the Elders

Title: Susanna and the Elders (1938)

Artwork Description & Analysis: "Lewd, immoral, obscene...the lowest expression of pure filth"-- wrote one critic in condemnation of Benton's interpretation of Susanna and the Elders. The work demonstrates the difficulties of painting religious imagery and Biblical scenes with a contemporary vocabulary. Based on the religious parable from the Book of Daniel, Benton recasts the tale within rural America. Here, Susanna is shown bathing, unaware of two elderly, lecherous men who spy on her. The pair will demand that Susanna has sex with them; least they spread salacious rumors about her. In this scene, the men confer on their plan to blackmail the young Hebrew maiden. Benton's frank and realistic treatment of the Susanna's body, rather than an idealized and sanitized version, breaks from the long tradition of classicizing the female body dating back to antiquities, and would have been radical and shocking to audiences at the time.


Egg tempera and oil on canvas - California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA

The Sowers: from The Year of Peril: A Series of War Paintings
The Sowers: from The Year of Peril: A Series of War Paintings

Title: The Sowers: from The Year of Peril: A Series of War Paintings (1942)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Benton decided to paint large-scale propagandistic paintings to awaken Americans to the evils of fascism. In only six weeks, Benton produced eight works in a series he called The Year of Peril. His plan was to hang the works at the busy crossroads of Kansas City's Union Station wanting to jolt the travelers and commuters who passed by into awareness. His over-riding objective was to portray America's enemies as genocidal maniacs. Based on Millet's life-affirming and famous, The Sower, which shows a peasant sowing the fields, here, a craven giant with Asiatic facial features, tills a field of death as he casually tosses skulls onto a bloodied landscape.


Oil and tempera on canvas mounted on panel - State Historical Society of Missouri, Colombia, Missouri

The Sources of Country Music
The Sources of Country Music

Title: The Sources of Country Music (1975)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In 1973, when Benton was eighty-four, he was convinced to come out of retirement to paint a mural for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, which turned out to be his final work. In this painting, Benton celebrates American traditions including vernacular music. Benton himself was an amateur musician. Among the vignettes depicted are a barn dance, women singing church music, a white woman with a dulcimer who sing Appalachian ballads, an African American man strums the banjo. Stylistically and thematically, Benton's last work directly connects back to his Regionalist works of the 1930s when he was likened as America's most beloved painter. However, despite the stylistic innovations made by some of his former students such as Pollock, and the many artistic movements that followed, Benton remained unchanged and thus, outside of the progressive art world. Benton's work is a conservative, populist vision of painting American life.


Acrylic on Canvas - The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Nashville, TN

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.