Thomas Hart Benton 1889 —1975

Biography

The Synchromists extended and intensified Cezanne's color-form theories, in which form was seen as a derivative of the organization of color planes, by abandoning completely the usual colors of nature, replacing them with highly saturated spectral colors and extending them into an area of purely "abstract" form.

-Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton was the lifelong mentor of Pollock, Jackson (1912-56), American painter, and commanding figure of the Abstract Expressionist movement.  Pollock’s rhythmic spirals were a natural outgrowth of this relationship.  See, Henry Adams Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock (Bloomsbury Press 2010)

Likely the most important painter of the American Scene* movement, Thomas Hart Benton created a style and addressed subject matter that was uniquely American as well as specific to his state of Missouri, and that combined elements of modernism and realism.  His signature painting was regionalist* genre, especially laboring figures.  In addition to many murals, he also painted landscapes and portraits.

-Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art and Thomas Hart Benton

 

Thomas Hart Benton, an American Regionalist artist, was born in Neosho, Missouri in 1889. His family had great political influence and was a notable Missouri family.  His great uncle was Senator and his father a Congressman, both from Missouri.  At an early age, Benton looked beyond his storied political familial roots to a career as an artist. Young Benton grew up near the Ozarks, source of inspiration for some of his great mature works. Benton was treated to an extensive education that involved many travels. From 1907-1908, he studied with Frederick Oswald at the Chicago Art Institute and under Jean-Paul Laurens at the Academie Julien in Paris and for a longer period at the Academie Collarossi in Paris, where he could work independently.

 

In 1911, Colonel Benton decided he could no longer support his son in Paris, so young Tom went to New York.  Between 1910 and 1920, he experimented with Impressionist, Neo-Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Synchronistic styles, the last influenced by his friend, Stanton MacDonald-Wright.  For much of this time, he was a dedicated modernist, but a fire destroyed most of the examples of his painting from this time period.  During WWI from 1918-19, he served in the Navy from where he made use of his drafting experience. This draftsman experience led to his American Scene realist style beginning with a mural, "The American Historical Epic," for the New School of Social Research.  He became famous for the Contemporary American mural called “Tabloid Art,” painted for the New School for Social Research in New York City. This work earned much respect for mural painting and was later important to the support of artists in the Federal Art Projects undertaken during the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

 

His prominence in the world of art began to take shape in the early 1920's and 30's. Sidney Larson, an artist and friend, recalled, "He took on the high and mighty of politics, art education, criticism, or, simply, privilege." Evident in his early works was a leftist political philosophy much like his fathers, a member of the House of Representatives from 1894 to 1904. They shared an opposition of eastern bankers, railroad magnates, and industrial capitalists. At one point, Benton was even a card carrying communist, allowing secret meetings to be held in his home.  Benton's great love, however, was the common man and his life. His paintings delight in glorifying this backbone of the American consciousness.

 

He completed several murals in the Midwest and on the east coast. Shortly before Harry Truman’s death in December 1972, Benton finished a portrait of the former President. Thomas Hart Benton died on January 19, 1975 in Kansas City, the day he completed a large mural for the Country Music Foundation of Nashville.

 

Benton taught at the Art Students League and became a major influence on the style of gestural painter, Jackson Pollock.  On February 19, 1922, Benton married Rita Piacenza, one of his students. In 1935 they moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where Benton directed the Art Institute until 1941, and where he continued to live for the rest of his life. Albert Barnes, the Philadelphia collector, purchased some of his paintings, which raised the level of public success for the artist. Benton published his autobiography, An Artist in America, in 1937.

 

The American art scene was increasingly bending toward abstract and non-representational painting.  But Benton grew to believe that art should express one's surroundings rather than abstract ideas and that the ordinary person most exemplified American life. Many of these ideas he inherited from his Populist father who served as a Congressman from Missouri from 1897 to 1905. He left New York City in 1935 for Kansas City where he served as Director of Painting at the Kansas City Art Institute.  He set up a studio in Kansas City which served him for the next forty years, until his death at age 85.

 

 

Known as a great mural painter, Benton created images for the New School of Social Research, Missouri Capitol Building, the Power Authority of the State of New York, and the Indiana Capitol Building as well. 

Benton’s last great project was in Independence, Missouri, at the Truman Library. Founded in the early nineteenth century, Independence found its way into American folklore by being the last city before the frontier. By the 1830's, it was a bustling center of trade for the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. The 1849 Gold Rush in California only confirmed its place in history as an icon of the American West. Independence was no stranger to the blood, sweat, and tears that Benton often painted. When confronted with the idea of painting a mural in the Truman Library, Benton immediately began to conceptualize an idea for "Independence and the Opening of the West" that would focus on the history of Independence. Benton hoped to generalize the history by depicting no particular events or people, excepting Truman. Truman, however, would have nothing to do with a project that would glorify him personally and requested that he not be put in the picture. After some bantering with President Truman over who should be depicted and other ideas, that included Jeffersonian Democracy, Benton's idea was accepted. Depicting three decades, 1817 to 1847, the mural successfully paints a conceptual view of the founding of Independence.

Benton began work on the mural in early 1960, three years after the founding of the Truman Library. Out of the mural, a deep and lasting friendship emerged between two of Missouri's most famous sons. In one account, Benton, high on the scaffolding, was listening to the comments of his chief critic and patron below, President Truman. Finally Benton called down, "If you want to help paint, come up here." "By golly, I will," Truman replied. He climbed up to the platform, seized a brush and began dabbing blue on the sky. Occasions like this made the President and the artist lifelong friends.

American Regionalism to which Benton is connected was an art movement originating in the 1920's and 30's which sought to capture the sweat and grit of the 'real' America. Three artists are associated with the movement; John Stuart Curry, Grant Wood, and Thomas Hart Benton.   Likely the most important painter of the American Regionalist or American Scene Movement, Thomas Hart Benton created a style and addressed subject matter that was uniquely American as well as specific to his state of Missouri, and that combined elements of modernism and realism. His signature painting was regionalist genre, especially laboring figures. In addition to many murals, he also painted landscapes and portraits.  Benton died in 1975. 

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Works by Thomas Hart Benton are in 106 museums including: Addison Gallery of American Art; Akron Art Museum; Albright Knox Art Gallery;  Allen Memorial Art Museum; Allentown Art Museum; Amon Carter Museum of Art;  Arizona State University Art Museum; Baltimore Museum of Art;  Boca Raton Museum of Art; Brandywine River Museum;  Brooklyn Museum of Art;  Butler Institute of American Art; Stanford; Brandywine River Museum;  Brooklyn Museum of Art;  Butler Institute of American Art; Cantor Arts CenterCarnegie Museums of Pittsburgh/Carnegie;    Chrysler Museum of Art; Cleveland Museum of Art;  Colby College Museum of Art; Dallas Museum of Art;   Delaware Art Museum; Denver Art Museum; De Young Museum of San Francisco; The Detroit Institute of Arts;   Fogg Art Museum;  Georgia Museum of Art; ; High Museum of Art; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; ; Hunter Museum of American Art; Indianapolis Museum of Art; ;  Jack S Blanton Museum of Art; Joslyn Art Museum; ; Joslyn Art Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Lowe Art Museum; Lyman Allyn Museum; Maier Museum of Art; Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum; Mead Art Museum; Memorial Art Gallery; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Michael C Carlos Museum; Minnesota Museum of American Art; Minnesota Museum of American Art; Museum of Art at Brigham Young University; Museum of Fine Arts Boston; Museum of Modern Art;   Museum of Fine Arts, Houston TX; Museum of New Mexico; Muskegon Museum of Art; Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas;  National Academy of Design ; National Gallery of Art; National Portrait Gallery; Nelson-Atkins Museum of ArtNeuberger Museum of Art; Newark Museum;  New Orleans Museum of Art; Norton Museum of Art; Oklahoma City Museum of Art; Parrish Art Museum;  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Philadelphia Museum of Art; ; Philbrook Museum of Art;  Phoenix Art Museum; Portland Art Museum; Princeton University Art;  Rhode Island School of Design-Museum of Art; Robert Hull Fleming Museum; San Diego Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Santa Barbara Museum of Art; Sheldon Museum of Art; Smithsonian American Art Museum; Telfair Museum of Art; Williams College Museum of ArtWhitney Museum of American Art; Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art; Walker Art Center;   Whitney Museum of American Art; Williams College Museum of Art; and  Yale University Art Gallery .

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