Biography of Thomas Hart Benton, Painter of American Life

thomas hart benton
Hans Wild / Getty Images

Thomas Hart Benton was a 20th-century American artist who led the movement known as regionalism. He scorned the avant-garde and instead focused on his native Midwest and the Deep South as his most significant subject matter. His style did draw influence from elements of modernist art, but his work was unique and immediately recognizable.

Fast Facts: Thomas Hart Benton

  • Occupation: Painter and muralist
  • Born: April 15, 1889 in Neosho, Missouri
  • Parents: Elizabeth Wise Benton and Colonel Maecenas Benton
  • Died: January 19, 1975 in Kansas City, Missouri
  • Education: School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Academie Julian
  • Movement: Regionalism
  • Spouse: Rita Piacenza
  • Children: Thomas and Jessie
  • Selected Works: "America Today," (1931), "A Social History of Missouri" (1935), "The Sowers" (1942), "The Sources of Country Music" (1975)
  • Notable Quote: "The only way an artist can personally fail is to quit work."

Early Life and Education

Born in southeastern Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton was part of a family of noted politicians. His father served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and he shared his name with a great-great-uncle who was one of the first two U.S. senators elected from Missouri. The younger Thomas attended Western Military Academy with an expectation that he would follow in the family's political footsteps.

Benton rebelled against his father, and, with the encouragement of his mother, he enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1907. Two years later, he relocated to Paris, France to study at Academie Julian. While studying, Benton met Mexican artist Diego Rivera and synchromist painter Stanton Macdonald-Wright. Their approach saw color as analogous to music, and it heavily influenced the developing painting style of Thomas Hart Benton.

In 1912, Benton returned to the U.S. and settled in New York City. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War I, and while stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, he worked as a "camoufleur" to help apply camouflage painting schemes to ships, and he drew and painted the everyday shipyard life. The 1921 painting "The Cliffs" shows both the influence of Benton's precise naval work and the sweeping movement shown in paintings from the synchromist movement.

thomas hart benton cliffs
"The Cliffs" (1921). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Enemy of Modernism

Upon his return to New York City after the war, Thomas Hart Benton declared that he was an "enemy of modernism." He started painting in a naturalistic, realistic style that soon became known as regionalism. At the end of the 1920s, approaching age 40, he received his first large commission to paint the "America Today" series of murals for the New School for Social Research in New York. Among its ten panels are ones devoted explicitly to the Deep South and the Midwest. Art critics saw influence from the Greek master El Greco in the elongated human figures in the pictures. Benton included himself, his patron, Alvin Johnson, and his wife, Rita, among the subjects in the series.

After the completion of his New School commission, Benton earned the opportunity to paint murals of Indiana life for the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. He was a relative unknown nationally until his decision to try and depict all of Indiana's life caused controversy. The murals included members of the Ku Klux Klan in robes and hoods. In the 1920s, an estimated 30% of Indiana adult males were Klan members. The finished murals now hang in three different buildings on the main campus of Indiana University.

In December 1934, Time magazine featured Thomas Hart Benton in color on its cover. The issue discussed Benton and fellow painters Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry. The magazine identified the three as prominent rising American artists and declared that regionalism was a significant art movement.

In late 1935, at the peak of his fame, Benton wrote an article in which he attacked New York art critics who complained about his work. Subsequently, he left New York and returned to his native Missouri to take a teaching position at the Kansas City Art Institute. The return led to a commission for what many consider Thomas Hart Benton's finest work, a set of murals depicting a "Social History of Missouri" to decorate the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.

missouri state capitol
Missouri State Capitol - Thomas Hart Benton Room. Bill Badzo / Creative Commons 2.0

Throughout the rest of the 1930s, Benton continued to create notable works, including controversial nudes of the mythological Greek goddess "Persephone" and an interpretation of the Biblical story "Susanna and the Elders." He published the autobiography "An Artist in America" in 1937. It documented his travels around the U.S. and earned strong positive reviews from critics.

Art Educator

In addition to his notable work as a painter, Thomas Hart Benton had a long career as an art educator. He taught at the Art Students League of New York from 1926 to 1935. There, one of his most notable students was Jackson Pollock, later a leader of the abstract expressionist movement. Pollock later claimed that he learned what to rebel against from Benton's teaching. Despite his declaration, the teacher and student were close at least for a time. Pollock appears as the model for a harmonica player in Benton's 1934 painting "The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley."

thomas hart benton
Thomas Hart Benton with student. Alfred Eisenstaedt / Getty Images

After returning to Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton taught at the Kansas City Art Institute from 1935 through 1941. The school dismissed him from his position after Time magazine quoted him saying that the average museum was, "a graveyard run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists and a swing in his gait." It was one of multiple disparaging references to the influence of homosexuality in the art world.

Later Career

In 1942, Benton created paintings to help boost the American cause in World War II. His series titled "The Year of Peril" depicted the threats of fascism and Nazism. It included the piece "The Sowers," which references, in a nightmarish fashion, Millet's world-famous "The Sower." A giant in military cap seeds a field of death skulls tossed into the landscape.

thomas hart benton sowers
"The Sowers" (1942). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

By the end of the war, regionalism was no longer celebrated as the vanguard of American art. Abstract expressionism captured the attention of the New York art world. Despite the fading of his celebrity, Thomas Hart Benton actively painted for another 30 years.

Among the late-career murals painted by Benton are "Lincoln" for Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri; "Joplin at the Turn of the Century" for the city of Joplin, Missouri; and "Independence and the Opening of the West" for the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri. Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame commissioned Benton's final mural, "The Sources of Country Music." He was finishing the work at the time of his death in his mid-80s in 1975. It shows reverence for barn dances, Appalachian ballads, and the African-American influence on country music. The style of painting is unchanged from Thomas Hart Benton's peak period 40 years earlier.

Legacy

Thomas Hart Benton was one of the first American artists to effectively combine aesthetic ideas from modernist painting with reverence for regional realistic subject matter. He embraced his native Midwest and elevated its history and people through his creation of monumental murals celebrating their everyday life. Coming before the New Deal Arts Program, Benton's mural work strongly influenced the efforts of the WPA to create murals honoring American history and life.

thomas hart benton cradling wheat
"Cradling Wheat" (1938). Gandalf's Gallery / Creative Commons 2.0

While some dismiss Benton's role as an arts educator in the development of American painting, echoes of his brash, muscular approach to creating art can be seen in the work of his most famous student, Jackson Pollock.

In 1956, the National Academy of Design, an honorary organization for artists, elected Thomas Hart Benton as a full member. He was the subject of a celebrated 1988 Ken Burns documentary titled "Thomas Hart Benton." His home and studio are a Missouri State Historic Site.

Sources

  • Adams, Henry. Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original. Knopf, 1989.
  • Baigell, Matthew. Thomas Hart Benton. Harry N. Abrams, 1975.