Thomas Hart Benton
American Painter and Muralist
Kansas City, Missouri
Summary of Thomas Hart Benton
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.
- Benton's main contribution to 20th-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.
Progression of Art
Self-Portrait with Rita
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 16th-century Italian art.
Oil on canvas - National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC
City Building (Part of American Today Mural)
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 José 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 - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY
The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley
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
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
"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
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
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
Biography of Thomas Hart Benton
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 19th-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 Cézanne. 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 José 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 in Kansas City, Missouri where he lived. His wife, Rita, died ten days later.
The Legacy of Thomas Hart Benton
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.