Thomas Hart Benton, American (1889 - 1975)
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.
Benton was a highly intelligent, energetic, flamboyant, pugnacious
and hard drinking fellow, who quite often found himself in the
center of controversy. As a student, he was unruly and alienated
many of his peers and teachers.
He was born in Neosho, Missouri, and named for a great uncle
and early United States Senator. His father, Colonel M.E. Benton,
was a congressman for eight years, and during the winter, the
family lived in Washington D.C. and in Neosho in the summer.
At age 17, after the family had returned to Missouri, he took
a summer job as cartoonist on "The Joplin American."
Determined to pursue his talent, he later said he had to run
away from home to become an artist.
In 1907-1908, he studied with Frederick Oswald at the Art Institute
of Chicago and then studied in Paris for three years including
briefly at the Academie Julian under Jean-Paul Laurens and for
a longer period at the Academie Collarossi, where he could work
In 1911, Colonel Benton decided he could no longer support his
son in Paris, so Tom went to New York. Between 1910 and 1920,
he experimented with Impressionist, Neo- Impressionist, Post-Impressionist,
and Synchromist 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.
His draftsman experience in the Navy, 1918-19, led to his American
Scene realist style beginning with a mural, "The American
Historical Epic" for the New School of Social Research
in New York City. This work earned much respect for mural painting
and was key to the support of artists in the Federal Art Projects.
His murals at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City are
major American Scene murals, and in 1957, he was commissioned
by Robert Moses, chairman of the board of the Power Authority
of the State of New York to paint a mural for the Power Authority
at Massena. For this work at the site, he did extensive research
on the theme, which was the Canadian expedition of Jacques Cartier
in the mid 1500s.
The early part of his career he lived in New York City where
he taught at the Art Students League and became a major influence
on the style of gestural painter, Jackson Pollock. But increasingly
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.
From 1935, he established a studio in Kansas City from where
he painted for the next forty years until his death at age 86.
He was both a prolific lithographer, completing 80 lithographs
between 1929 and 1945, and writer including two autobiographies,
"An Artist in America," and "An American Art."
Fellow Missourian and former United States President Harry Truman
said that Benton was "the best damned painter in America."