Thomas Hart Benton

An Overview of the life and art of Thomas Hart Benton, regionalist of the American Midwest of the 1930s and 1940s.

Thomas Hart Benton - American Artist

Thomas Hart Benton was born April 15, 1889 in Neosho, Missouri. He was named after a great-uncle who served as a U.S. Senator before the Civil War. His father served as a U.S. Congressman from Missouri. He grew up going to boarding schools and spent much of his early years during his father's four terms as a U.S. Congressman. Benton's first art job was as a cartoonist for the Joplin American in Missouri.

In 1907, when he was eighteen, Benton began his serious art training at Washington D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery School. Later on in 1907 Benton studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago but left out of dissatisfaction with the school's teaching techniques of using plaster casts as models from which to draw. In 1908, Benton went to Paris and studied at the Academie Julian for three years. It was here that he learned of contemporary European art styles such as postimpressionism and cubism. Benton's early works followed these European styles. More of his early work would be available except that it was destroyed in a fire in 1917 in Neosho, Missouri.

In 1918, Benton became a draftsman for the U.S. Navy and worked out of the Norfolk, Virginia Naval Yard. The work of draftsman demanded objectivity from Benton and this influence greatly shows itself in his mature works. This draftsman experience also led him away from the European influences he had gained in Paris. Benton began working more in the form of realism in his work. In 1923, following his naval duty, Benton moved to New York City and taught art at the Art Students League for twelve years. In 1935, Benton moved back to his home state of Missouri and taught at the Kansas City Art Institute. He also directed the institute. Benton would stay here the rest of his life. His most famous student was Jackson Pollock, the Abstract Expressionist. On January 19, 1975, he died at the age of eighty-five in his studio.

Thomas Hart Benton is best known for his portrayal of Midwest American life during the 1930s and 1940s and also for exhibiting a rebellious spirit of going against the grain of the art world of his era. His style was bold color with strong lines. The characters in his paintings have an almost caricature-like appearance in that the muscles and facial aspects are distended and given a fluid appearance. Benton is perhaps best known for his mural work. His most famous murals are located in New York City at the New School for Social Research, the state capitol building of Missouri and the Harry S. Truman Library. Some critics have labeled Benton as a Regionalist for only producing work from scenes of the American Midwest. A careful examination of his work would show that his art goes beyond the scope of a Regionalist and extends to many aspects of American Life. For example, following Benton's term of service for the Navy he decided to embark on a project that would depict American history in twelve groups of paintings, five works in each group for a total of 75 large paintings. The undertaking was to be known as the American Historical Epic. It was to be an examination of the people's history of the United States; not an idealized, sanitized depiction of American history but focusing on scenes of exploitation and violence. Benton only finished three of the paintings before giving up on the project due to dissatisfaction. He began working on paintings of the people and culture around him.

Thomas Hart Benton painted scenes that could be deemed rebellious for his time. Benton painted scenes of black agricultural workers in the fields, farmers struggling to get in the harvest, or seedy bar scenes with drunken lewdness and murder. His paintings were not idealistic or romantic. They contained explosions of color, giving the canvas an almost gaudy aspect. The subjects were treated with a tremendous boldness, an overpowering boldness of an America that was bigger than life itself. Every scene was an outpouring of excess. From the greed and grasping hordes of capitalism to the raw strength of a cowboy wrestling a steer to the ground Benton brought the scenes of the Midwest to life with a strength that could not be ignored by the art world. Benton's works are realistic in their nature, but not as the quaint realism of Norman Rockwell. Many of the paintings act as criticism of U.S. life and culture. Yet they are not done in an air of superiority. They are done so that the viewer of the work has to come face to face with America from toiling farmer to exploitation of African Americans to debauchery in a gin mill. The genius of Thomas Hart Benton is not in his critical depiction of America culture, but of making the art viewer confront a view of America that is not romanticized at all.

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