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15 Things You Might Not Know About Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton was a painter noted for his murals and other works depicting everyday people and their lives in the context of the history of America. He's been called an "anthropologist of American life" who sought to record the beautiful, the ugly, and the mundane. Born in small-town Missouri in 1889, he died in 1975.

1. HE WAS A FOREMOST REGIONALIST ARTIST.

Thomas Hart Benton was one of the best known American artists of the early and middle 20th century, and he was a leading member of the art movement known as Regionalism. Regionalist art usually represented scenes of everyday life in rural settings, especially of the American Midwest. Another famous Regionalist painter was Grant Wood, famed for the painting American Gothic.

2. HE CAME FROM AN INFLUENTIAL FAMILY.

Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri in 1889. His father was Maecenas Benton, a four-term Congressman from the Show Me State with the nickname the “little giant of the Ozarks.” In his obituary, The New York Times noted that the Benton family was “to Missouri what the Cabots are to Boston.”

3. BENTON WAS NAMED FOR A FAMOUS RELATIVE.

His father named him for his own great-uncle Thomas Hart Benton, who was one of the first two senators from Missouri when it became a state. The politician was an important advocate of the westward expansion of the United States, and he was also the first person to serve five terms as a senator and one of the few people to serve in the House of Representatives after having served as a senator. Choosing that famous name was a clear signal to all that Maecenas Benton wanted his eldest son to go into politics.

4. BENTON’S MOTHER HELPED HIM DEFY HIS FATHER'S WISHES.

Benton’s father sent him to a military boarding school and wanted him to study the law. But Benton wanted to study art, and was assisted with this by his mother, Elizabeth Benton, who helped send him to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago at the age of 18. She supported him financially until he was in his thirties.

5. HIS FIRST PAID WORK WAS AS A CARTOONIST.

Benton’s first job as an artist was as a newspaper cartoonist for the Joplin American in southern Missouri. He applied for the position as a way to get out of an embarrassing situation—when a couple of bar patrons teased the 17-year-old Benton for staring at a particularly risqué painting hanging above the saloon, he insisted he was simply studying its artistic merits. Unconvinced that the teen was actually an artist, the men challenged him to apply for the cartoonist job open at the newspaper down the street. To save face, Benton walked down there with the men, drew up a quick caricature of the local druggist for the editor, and was hired on the spot.

6. HIS STUDIES IN PARIS INTRODUCED HIM TO MANY INFLUENTIAL ARTISTS, BUT HE WAS TOO SHY TO BEFRIEND THEM.

Benton sailed to Paris in 1909 to study at the Académie Julian and stayed in the city for a few years. There, he was introduced to the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, the ex-pat novelist Gertrude Stein, modernist John Marin, and various other Americans who attended the local cafes. "These people were all around the Quarter," Benton wrote in his memoirs, "but I shied away from them for I soon discovered they were all more talented and capable than I."

7. MUSIC AFFECTED HIS ART.

"The Sources of Country Music" (1975) Natalie Curtiss via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

His studies in Paris also introduced him to Synchromism, a style of art that uses color as a way to illustrate music. Synchromism was avant-garde (and founded by a member of Benton's eventual Paris inner circle, Stanton Macdonald-Wright), but the movement did not last very long. Benton eventually went back to creating art that was representational when he returned to the United States.

But music still influenced his art. Many of his paintings contain musical imagery. In fact, one of his last murals was The Sources of Country Music for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, which he was working on when he died.

8. HE DIDN’T JUST DEPICT MUSIC, HE COULD ALSO PLAY IT.

Benton was a serious harmonica player who started a group called the Harmonica Rascals, and he even recorded an album in 1942 for Decca Records called Saturday Night at Tom Benton's, and went so far as to create his own musical notation system. He also collected and catalogued popular music, and was friends with musicologist Charles Seeger. Seeger's son, the future folk legend Pete Seeger, said that he first heard the classic folk song "John Henry" when Benton played it for him.

9. THE WORK HE DID IN THE NAVY KEPT HIM CONNECTED TO REALISTIC ART.

Benton served in the U.S. Navy during World War I and was assigned to create realistic drawings and illustrations of work in the shipyards and life in the Navy. This insistence on realism continued throughout his career. He was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, and part of his Navy work consisted of documenting the camouflage patterns on Naval vessels so that they could be identified and ensure that the camouflage was correctly painted.

10. JACKSON POLLOCK WAS ONE OF HIS STUDENTS.

During his career he taught at several major art schools, including the Art Students League of New York from 1926 to 1935 and the Kansas City Art Institute from 1935 to 1941. Although he is considered an artist of the Midwest, Benton lived in New York City for 20 years. While at the Art Students League, one of his students was Jackson Pollock, and although Pollock became far better known as an Abstract Expressionist, a style of art completely different from Benton’s and an example of the modernism that Benton detested, Pollock became a surrogate son of sorts to Benton. "It was obvious from the first that Pollock was a born artist," Benton once told a newspaper columnist. "All I taught Jack was how to drink a fifth a day."

11. SOME OF HIS MURALS PISSED PEOPLE OFF.

Benton was commissioned to create murals for the state of Indiana to be displayed at the 1933 Century of Progress exposition in Chicago, a.k.a. the Chicago World’s Fair. Known as the Indiana Murals, Indiana wanted to portray the social and industrial history of the state, but instead, one of Benton's depictions caused outrage because it was a bit too honest. One section of the murals depicted a Ku Klux Klan rally, illustrating the Klan's large social and political presence in Indiana (reportedly, in the mid-'20s, up to 40 percent of the state's native-born white men paid dues to the Klan). The murals are now on display at Indiana University.

12. HE CREATED NUMEROUS MURALS OF HIS HOME STATE.

In 1935, the State of Missouri commissioned Benton to create a series of murals for the state capitol building. The murals, called A Social History of Missouri, are still on display in the House Lounge (the room formerly used by representatives to congregate between sessions). The 13-panel work [PDF] includes scenes of the founding and early history of Missouri, but—as his Indiana Murals did—Benton didn't shy away from showing the more shameful sides of the state's history, including images of a slave auction and lynchings. The first reactions to the murals were positive, but the state legislators were not all amused by some of Benton’s choices. He calmed them down by showing his meticulous research and preparation for each part of the mural. The controversy eventually faded and the murals—which also showcased fictional Missouri heroes Huck Finn and Jim, outlaw brothers Frank and Jesse James, and Benton's own father Maecenus Benton giving a speech—remain in place.

Other murals by Benton include America Today, which is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; Independence and The Opening of the West at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri; and Lincoln at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri.

13. ONE OF HIS NUDES EARNED HIM SOME NOTORIETY.

One of the most famous of Benton’s paintings is Persephone, a depiction of a naked woman lounging on a river bank while an elderly man peeps around the tree. The subject matter is taken from the Greek myth of how the goddess Persephone was abducted by Hades, but the setting in the painting is rural America with the craggy farmer taking the place of the god of the underworld. One art historian called the painting “one of the great works of American pornography.” The painting was considered so scandalous by the Kansas City Art Institute that it was one of the reasons Benton lost his job there, but Broadway impresario Billy Rose liked it and borrowed it to display in his famous New York nightclub, the Diamond Horseshoe. It is now part of Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum's permanent collection.

14. BENTON’S POLITICS WERE PRETTY FLUID, AND NEVER FULLY DECIPHERED.

Many discussions of Benton use the word “pugnacious” to describe him. Benton was outspoken about his views on art and many other topics. He was widely known for issuing some very homophobic views about art critics and the art world. But Benton used his art to showcase the evils of racism and of fascism in the years leading up to World War II. The art world generally saw his folksy, rural, and realistic style as a reactionary response to most modern art movements. Then again, Benton did not care for most of the art styles of the 20th century. He declared himself to be an enemy of modernism in the 1920s.

15. KEN BURNS MADE A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT BENTON.

It often seems that one way to determine the importance of someone in American history or culture is whether he or she is the subject of a Ken Burns documentary. Benton qualifies, and his Burns doc aired on PBS in 1989.

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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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