Although he’d been to soirées in “Paree” and New York’s Stork Club, American artist and muralist Thomas Hart Benton played a harmonica and reveled in his self-honed image as a hard-drinking hillbilly. Detractors, both past and present, dismissed Benton’s art as “Okie baroque”, while supporters praised his efforts to paint realistic images based on American subject matter. During Benton’s long life (1889-1975), he constantly moved people to tears — tears of rage as well as love.
“We have the struggle of any artist laid bare before us — its promise and its failures,” says filmmaker Ken Burns, who considers Benton “a perfect mirror of the American character,” warts and all. On the “good side” were ambition, talent and skill. “But he was also seduced by fame and attracted by attention.”
Burns was intrigued by the ironies in Benton’s life. For example, his most famous student was Jackson Pollock, whose abstract expressionist paintings are the antithesis, almost an affront, to Benton’s own work. He was also a Midwesterner and proud of it, but fled East and overseas to develop a style which his best known for celebrating rural America. As for Benton himself, Burns’s film points out that he was a sophisticate who pretended to be simple. “If nothing else,” says Burns, “Thomas Hart Benton is a hell of a good story.”
Born in Neosho, Missouri, Benton was the product of a prodigiously unhappy marriage. Art was far from what his father, Colonel Maecenas Benton, had in mind for his son, whom he shipped of to military school. The elder Benton couldn’t have been a more inappropriate mate for Benton’s beautiful, artistically-inclined mother, Elizabeth. The Colonel was a rough-hewn politician, four times elected to Congress and known as the “little giant of the Ozarks.” Maecenas even bestowed the name of his famous uncle — the champion of Manifest Destiny, Senator Thomas Hart Benton — upon his son.
But according to Benton’s sister, Mildred Small, it was her mother who supported Tom both financially and emotionally until he married at age 33. Although the Colonel wanted his son to become a lawyer and politician like himself, Small recalls that it was her mother who eventually prevailed and Tom was sent to the Chicago Art Institute. “My mother was a great power in his growing up,” she says. Benton then went on to Paris and, finally, to New York, where he persevered as an impoverished painter for more than a decade but found his “regionalist” roots.
Benton was at war with the Eastern art establishment from the moment he hit his stride as a determinedly realistic painter. At a time when revolutionary art forms were flourishing, Benton was working on huge murals and audacious paintings that reflected raw American life, some of it historical, mostly of ordinary folk caught in the throes of hard work.
“Benton was driven out of New York,” says Henry Adams, curator of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, which mounted a traveling centennial retrospective of Benton’s work in 1989. According to Adams, the painter 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. He returned to Missouri.
While not all critics agree on Benton’s work today, he has his champions, Adams among them. “I would rank him very high as an American artist,” says Adams. The power and glory are in the explicit Americana of Benton’s crowded murals, which Adams describes as “extraordinarily exciting visually.”
The murals are packed with complexity and energy. Many have been moved from their original locations but are still accessible. America Today, nine panels painted in 1929 for the walls of a boardroom at the New School for Social Research in New York City’s Greenwich Village, is now uptown in the atrium of the Equitable Tower at Equitable Center.
Still in place are the autobiographical murals Benton painted in the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City in 1935. That commission, and the job as head of the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute, brought Benton, and his intensely loyal wife, Rita, back to the state where he was born.
Mildred Small remembers Rita Benton’s caveat: “I’ll go, if you promise never to ask your mother to go there.” The elder Mrs. Benton already was a summer neighbor of theirs on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where Tom and Rita spent every summer for 50 years. Small recalls she and her mother walking “over two small hills and through a little wood” for pleasant early morning visits with Benton. “I always thought of Tom as an agreeable person except when he was drunk,” Small allows.
At times, Benton took pleasure in the profane. Persephone, his notorious nude, cost Benton his job at the Kansas City Art Institute but hung for a time in showman Billy Roses’ New York nightclub, The Diamond Horseshoe. “A good deal of Tom was out there to shock,” says Burns, who also points to Benton’s Susannah and the Elders, a nude with red fingernails that infuriated the clergy. “He knew art works on more than one level.”
Persephone is now part of the permanent collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. “It’s the city’s Mona Lisa,” chuckles Earl Bennett, a student of Benton’s who watched him paint what art historian Karal Ann Marling cheerfully calls “one of the great works of American pornography.”
According to Small, “Tom made a lot more enemies than friends. He was rude to people.” But what friends he did make were devoted ones, among them his students. “He loved us and we loved him,” Bennett says simply, hailing Benton as an inspiring teacher. “He conveyed to us his sensuous involvement with color, materials and textures. He’d get terribly excited about a milkweed in the fall with its glowing gold interior. [He showed us how] milkweed could be sexy,” Bennett remembers. “A fire burned in that little old man.”