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Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks. Simonides

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton (April 15, 1889 – January 19, 1975) was an American painter and muralist. Along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, he was at the forefront of the Regionalist art movement. His fluid, almost sculpted paintings showed everyday scenes of life in the United States. Though his work is perhaps best associated with the Midwest, he created scores of paintings of New York, where he lived for over 20 years; Martha’s Vineyard, where he summ ered for much of his adult life; the American South; and the American West.


In 1907 Benton enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, but left for Paris in 1909 to continue his art education at the Académie Julian. In Paris, Benton met other North American artists such as Diego Rivera and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, an advocate of Synchromism. Wright's influence gave a strong Synchromist leaning to Benton's work.

Benton returned to New York City in 1913 and resumed painting. During World War I, he served in the U.S. Navy and was stationed at Norfolk, Virginia, where he engaged in war-related work that had an enduring effect on his style. Initially, he was expected to make drawings of shipyard work and life in a documentary manner, a direction that influenced him for the rest of his life. Later in the war, classified as a camoufleur, he was assigned (as was the artist Louis Bouche) to making drawings of camouflaged ships that came into the harbor. This was done for several reasons: to make certain that U.S. ship painters were correctly applying the camouflage schemes that they had been provided with, to aid in identifying the remains of U.S. ships that might later be lost, and to have records of the ship camouflage of other Allied navies. In his own words, the work that he did in the Navy “was the most important thing, so far, I had ever done for myself as an artist.”


On return to New York in the early 1920s, Benton declared himself an "enemy of modernism" and began the naturalistic and representational work today known as Regionalism. Benton was active in leftist politics. He expanded the scale of his Regionalist works, culminating in his America Today murals at the New School for Social Research in 1930-31, now hanging in the lobby of the AXA building at 1290 Sixth Avenue in New York City. He was heavily influenced by El Greco.

In 1932 Benton broke through to the mainstream. A relative unknown, he was chosen to produce the murals of Indiana life that would become that state's contribution to the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, Illinois. The Indiana Murals stirred controversy; Benton painted everyday people but did not sugarcoat the state’s history, and many criticized the work for including Ku Klux Klan members in full regalia. The mural panels are currently displayed at Indiana University in Bloomington with the majority on display in the "Hall of Murals" at Indiana University Auditorium. Four additional panels are displayed in the former University Theatre which is connected to the Auditorium. The final two panels, including the most controversial panel, with images of the Ku Klux Klan, are located in a lecture classroom at Woodburn Hall.

Also in 1932, Benton produced a set of large murals for an early home of the Whitney Museum of American Art titled The Arts of Life in America. Major panels include Arts of the City, Arts of the West, Arts of the South and Indian Arts. Five of the panels were purchased by the New Britain Museum of American Art in 1953 and are on view there.

On December 24, 1934, Benton was featured on one of the earliest color covers of Time magazine. Benton’s work was featured along with fellow Midwesterners Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry in an article titled “The U.S. Scene”. The article portrayed the trio as the new heroes of American art and cemented Regionalism as a significant art movement.

In 1935, after he had "alienated both the left-leaning community of artists with his disregard for politics and the larger New York-Paris art world with what was considered his folksy style" Benton left the heated artistic debates of New York for Missouri, where Benton had agreed to create a mural for the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. A "Social History of Missouri" is perhaps Benton’s greatest work. But it, like his previous murals, caused controversy with its depiction of slavery and inclusion of subjects like Missouri outlaw Jesse James and political boss Tom Pendergast. Benton used his return to Missouri to embrace the Regionalist art movement. He settled in Kansas City, Missouri and accepted a teaching job at the Kansas City Art Institute. Kansas City afforded Benton greater access to the rural America then disappearing. Benton's sympathy was with the working class and the small farmer, unable to gain material advantage despite the Industrial Revolution. His works often show the melancholy, desperation and beauty of small-town life. In the late 1930s, he created some of his best known work, including the iconic allegorical nude "Persephone", which for a while hung in Billy Rose’s nightclub, the Diamond Horseshoe, and is now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. In 1937, he published his critically acclaimed autobiography, An Artist in America, which was praised by Sinclair Lewis: “Here’s a rare thing, a painter who can write.”[citation needed] During this period, Benton also began to produce signed, limited edition lithographs that were made available to the public at $5.00 each through the Associated American Artists Galleries.

Benton as teacher

Benton taught at the Art Students League of New York from 1926 to 1935 and at the Kansas City Art Institute from 1935 to 1941. His most famous student, Jackson Pollock, whom he mentored in the Art Students League, would go on to found the Abstract Expressionist movement—wildly different from Benton's own style. Jackson Pollock often said that Benton's traditional teachings gave him something to rebel against. However, art scholars have recognized the Pollock’s organizational principles continued to follow Benton’s teachings even after his move away from realism, with forms composed around a central vertical pole with each form counterbalanced by an equal and opposite form.

Benton's students in New York and Kansas City included many painters who would make significant contributions to American art. Among the dozens of other artists Benton impacted as a teacher were Pollock’s brother Charles Pollock, Charles Banks Wilson, Frederic James, Lamar Dodd, Reginald Marsh, Charles Green Shaw, Margot Peet, Jackson Lee Nesbitt, Roger Medearis, Glenn Gant, Fuller Potter, and Delmer J. Yoakum.Benton also taught the photographer and filmmaker Dennis Hopper briefly at the Kansas City Art Institute.

In 1941, Benton was dismissed from the Art Institute after calling the typical art museum "a graveyard run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists and a swing in his gait" with further disparaging references to, as he claimed, the excessive influence of homosexuals in the art world.

Later life

During World War II, Benton created a widely distributed series titled The Year of Peril, which brought into focus the threat to American ideals by fascism and Nazism. Following the war, Regionalism fell from favor, eclipsed by the rise of Abstract Expressionism. Benton remained active for another 30 years, but his work focused less on social commentary and more on creating stylized bucolic images of pre-industrial farmlands. He also painted a number of murals, including Lincoln (1953) at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, Trading At Westport Landing (1956) at The River Club in Kansas City, Father Hennepin at Niagara Falls (1961) for the Power Authority of the State of New York, Turn of the Century, Joplin (1972) in Joplin, Missouri, and Independence and the Opening of The West at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. His work on the Truman Library mural initiated a friendship with the former U.S. President that lasted for the rest of their lives. Benton died in 1975 at work in his studio, just as he completed his final mural, The Sources of Country Music for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1977, Benton's 2-1/2 story late-Victorian residence and carriage house studio in Kansas City became the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site. The site remains virtually unchanged from how it looked at Benton's death, with clothing, furniture, and paint brushes still in place; it is open for guided tours. The site includes displays of 13 original works of Benton's art.

Personal life

Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri, into an influential clan of politicians and powerbrokers. Benton's father, Maecenas Benton, was a lawyer and United States congressman, and his namesake and great-uncle Thomas Hart Benton was one of the first two United States Senators from Missouri.

Benton spent his childhood shuttling between Washington D.C. and Missouri. Benton rebelled against his grooming for a future political career, preferring to develop his interest in art. As a teenager, he worked as a cartoonist for the Joplin American newspaper, in Joplin, Missouri.

Benton met and married Rita Piacenza, an Italian immigrant, in 1922. They met while Benton was teaching art classes for a neighborhood organization in New York City and she was one of his students. They were married for 53 years until Thomas's death in 1975. Rita died ten weeks after her husband. The couple had a son, Thomas Piacenza Benton, born in 1926, and a daughter, Jessie Benton, born in 1939.


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