Saturday 7 May 2016

Thomas Hart Benton

"His paintings were burly.  Energetic.  Thomas Hart Benton depicted a self reliant America emerging from the Depression.  Ken Burns tells the bittersweet story of an extraordinary American artist  who became emblematic of the price all artists must pay to remain true to their talents and themselves." (Ken Burns)

Thomas Hart Benton circa 1935 courtesy

At the forefront of the Regionalist art movement, Thomas Hart Benton was born and raised in Missouri.  He was named after his great-great uncle, Thomas Benton, who served as one of the first two senators for Missouri.  His father, Colonel Macaenas Benton, was elected to the United States Congress four times.  The family divided their time between rural Missouri and urban Washington DC.

Like Walt Disney, Thomas Hart Benton worked as a cartoonist for a newspaper as a teenager.  And like Disney, he attended The Art Institute of Chicago.  He continued his art education in Paris at the Academie Julian.  Benton's mother strongly believed in his talent and supported her son until he married in his early thirties.

The Art Institute of Chicago circa early 1900's courtesy 

In 1912 Benton moved to New York City to paint fulltime.  However, the First World War intervened and Benton joined the Navy, drawing sketches of shipyard work and life in Norfolk, Virginia.  Reflecting on his time in the service, Benton explained:  "It was the most important thing, so far, I had ever done for myself as an artist."

Benton returned to New York City in the early 1920's where he picked up his paintbrush once again.  No longer a believer in Modernism, he began to set the tone for what became "Regionalism".  Benton broke into the mainstream when he was commissioned to do paintings for The Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago in 1933.  Despite the quality of the paintings, the Indiana Murals caused controversy due to their depiction of the Ku Klux Klan, at its peak in 1920's Indiana.  An estimated 30% of adult males were part of the KKK.  In 1924, KKK members held political offices including that of governor in the state of Indiana.

In 1935, Benton was featured in one of the first colour photographs on the cover of Time magazine. By this point, after having alienated his left leaning artist friends in New York City, Benton returned to his roots in Missouri.  There, he was commissioned to create a mural for the United States Capitol, A Social History of Missouri.  In a 1973 interview, Benton stated:  "If I have any right to make judgements, I would say that the Missouri mural was my best work."

One of the murals in the Missouri State Capitol courtesy

Benton was hired to teach art at the Kansas City Art Institute where he had a great effect on a young student named Jackson Pollock, a future member of the Group of Seven.  Later in life, Benton continued to paint murals including: Lincoln (1953), Trading at Westport Landing (1956), Father Hennepin at Niagara Falls (1961), Turn of the Century, Joplin (1962) and Independence and the Opening of the West (1972).  For more, visit

In 1975, Benton passed away followed by his wife of 53 years eleven weeks later.  Ken Burns documentary, Thomas Hart Benton, premiered on PBS in 1988 (

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