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Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton, 1941. Photo courtesy of WBUR / Associated Press

Raised in a Political Missouri Family

American Regionalist artist Thomas Hart Benton was born in 1889 into a political family in Neosho, Missouri. Benton’s father was a United States congressman and his great-great uncle was one of the first two senators from Missouri. Benton’s father sent him to military school and he also spent considerable time in Washington DC given his father’s profession.

Cartooning and Art Training

During his teens, Benton also drew cartoons for Missouri’s Joplin American newspaper. With his mother’s support, Benton attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago starting in 1907 before studying in Paris at Académie Julian in 1909. In France, Benton met Diego Rivera and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, whose abstract/musical philosophy, Synchromism, inspired Benton to experiment with non-representational painting briefly.

Exaggerated Realism in Modernist New York

In 1912, Benton moved to New York City before World War I took him to Norfolk, Virginia to serve as a naval artist. After the war, he resettled in New York and turned against modernism with an exaggerated yet realist style. From 1926 to 1935, Benton taught at the Art Students League, where he instructed the likes of Jackson Pollock and Charles Green Shaw. Teaching also introduced Benton to his future wife, Rita Piacenza, an Italian immigrant; they would stay together for the rest of Benton’s life and have two children. In 1930 and 1931, Benton created his America Today murals for the New School for Social Research, which drew on sketches he made while touring the country extensively. Suggestive of El Greco, these works are now housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Benton was hired to paint murals for Indiana at the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago and, in 1934, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine with fellow American Regionalists Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry.

Representing the Midwest, Documenting Hollywood

At odds with the New York art world, Benton moved back to Missouri with his family in 1935 and soon completed what many consider his master work, a large mural entitled A Social History of the State of Missouri (1936), which adorns the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. Included are images of slavery, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Jim, outlaw Jesse James, political boss Tom Pendergast, and others. From 1935 to 1941, Benton taught at the Kansas City Art Institute. In this period, he produced an engaging autobiography, An Artist in America (1937), and a provocative nude painting, Persephone (1939). Benton also traveled to Hollywood in 1937 for a LIFE magazine assignment for which he created scenes of the film business. This project subsequently influenced Benton’s artistic process by intensifying his interest in sweeping narrative and exposing him to techniques that he found useful, such as making preliminary clay models of figures and scenery.

World War II Series and Later Works

To oppose fascism during World War II, Benton released his series, The Year of Peril (1942), but Abstract Expressionism gained prominence after the war, sidelining Regionalist painters. In the decades leading up to his death in 1975, Benton continued making art, albeit in a nostalgic, pre-industrial style. Among his high-profile mural commissions was Independence and the Opening of the West (1961) at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri; Benton and Truman became friends thereafter. Works by Benton may be viewed today throughout the Midwest, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and elsewhere.

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Thomas Hart Benton
Thomas Hart Benton
Thomas Hart Benton
Thomas Hart Benton
Thomas Hart Benton
Thomas Hart Benton
Thomas Hart Benton
Thomas Hart Benton