Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) was one of the principal American regionalist painters of the 1930s. He imbued the subjects of his work, people of the small towns of the Midwest and South, with a crude, zesty vigor.
Thomas Hart Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri, the son and grandnephew of a United States congressmen. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1907, then traveled to Paris, where he spent five years observing new trends, familiarizing himself especially with cubism. Upon his return to the United States in 1912, he became a devotee of the synchromism advocated by his friend Stanton Macdonald-Wright. (Synchromism —"with color and sound"—was a nonobjective mode of painting, featuring intersecting planes. It was especially close to French orphism, a branch of cubism.) The work Benton submitted to the Forum Exhibition of American Painting of 1916 showed the influence of synchromism. But during most of this decade Benton was unable to resolve the conflicts he felt between nonobjectivity and realism in his painting. He later felt that the time spent in the Navy in 1918-1919 finally set him on his course toward an art devoted entirely to American subjects treated (he believed) in a realistic manner, devoid of traces of European avant-garde trends.
Murals Represented American Life
Between 1919 and 1924 Benton made studies for his projected series of mural decorations based on American history. From 1924 to about 1931 he traveled through the Midwest and the South, taking close note of the people he met and incorporating these observations in his paintings. Benton's murals generally show his overwhelming concern for the arrangement of figures and design, as in his paintings done in 1931 for New York City's New School for Social Research. In the New York murals a rhythmic movement sweeps through scenes of ordinary American folk shown purposefully at various activities—eating, dancing, or working. Benton's energetic, turbulent style is intended to suggest the vigor of the American people.
Benton produced a panorama of America's productive capacities in his scenes of mining, farming, and lumbering. He also painted scenes of burlesque houses, prize fights, and broncobusting, and he could capture the rapid, turbulent, and squalid growth of a boomtown. Occasionally he struck a poetic chord, as in his quiet scene of harvesting, July Hay (1943). Benton dealt with corruption, squalor, and inequality, but without the bitter indictments that are found in the work of such social realists as Jack Levine.
Benton wished to democratize art, to make it both intelligible and available to the general public (hence the large mural series). He planned a pictorial history of the United States in 64 panels, a project never completed. He was one of the most eloquent spokesmen for the major trend in American art during the 1930s—an art of a specifically American subject matter, done in a variety of naturalistic modes rather than in the European modernist styles of the previous decade.
Worked Throughout His Life
Benton continued to be productive well into his 80s. His portrait of Harry Truman, completed shortly before Truman's death, elicited this compliment from the equally earthy former president: "the best damned painter in America." Benton died in his studio on January 19, 1975, at the age of 85. He had just finished the basic work on a mural illustrating the origins of country music, commissioned by the Country Music Foundation in Nashville. The 100th anniversary of his birth was celebrated in 1989 at his home for 40 years, Kansas City. The festivities included a "bourbon bash" (which had become an annual event in honor of the rugged image the artist had fostered), as well as the opening of a national tour of his work and the premiere of a film biography.
Further Reading on Thomas Hart Benton
An Artist in America (1937) is Benton's own colorful account of his long career. Thomas Craven, Thomas Hart Benton (1939), is an examination of the artist and his work. For background information see Oliver W. Larkin, Art and Life in America (1949; 2d ed. 1960), and John W. McCoubrey, American Tradition in Painting (1963).
Additional Biography Sources
Adams, Henry, Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original (1989).
Dictionary of American Biography (supplement 9, 1971-1975, Scribner's, 1994).
New York Times (January 20, 1975).
Davis, Douglas, "The Rugged American," Newsweek (February 3, 1975).
Robbins, William, "Museums Make Peace With an Artist's Vision," New York Times (April 13, 1989).