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.
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.