Thomas Hart Benton (painter)
Thomas Hart Benton
Born (1889-04-15)April 15, 1889
Died January 19, 1975(1975-01-19) (aged 85)
Movement Regionalism, Social Realism, American modernism, American realism, Synchromism
Works “America Today” (1930-31), “Indiana Murals” (1933), “Social History of Missouri” (1936), “Persephone” (1938-39)
Influenced Jackson Pollock
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Thomas Hart Benton (April 15, 1889 – January 19, 1975) was an American painter and muralist. Along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, he was at the forefront of the Regionalist art movement. His fluid, almost sculpted paintings showed everyday scenes of life in the United States. Though his work is strongly associated with the Midwest, he painted scores of works of New York City, where he lived for more than 20 years; Martha’s Vineyard, where he summered for much of his adult life; the American South; and the American West.
 Early life and educationBenton was born in Neosho, Missouri, into an influential family of politicians and powerbrokers. Benton’s father, Maecenas Benton, was a lawyer and U.S. congressman. His namesake, great-uncle Thomas Hart Benton, was one of the first two United States Senators elected from Missouri. As a result of his father’s political career, Benton spent his childhood shuttling between Washington D.C. and Missouri, spending one year at Western Military Academy in 1905-06, and was part of two different cultures. Benton rebelled against his father’s grooming him for a future political career, and preferred to develop his interest in art. As a teenager, he worked as a cartoonist for the Joplin American newspaper, in Joplin, Missouri.
In 1907 Benton enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, but left for Paris in 1909 to continue his art education at the Académie Julian. In Paris, Benton met other North American artists, such as the Mexican Diego Rivera and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, an advocate of Synchromism. Benton subsequently adopted a Synchromist style from MacDonald-Wright’s influence.
 Early career and World War IAfter studying in Europe, Benton moved to New York City in 1913 and resumed painting. During World War I, he served in the U.S. Navy and was stationed at Norfolk, Virginia. His war-related work had an enduring effect on his style. He was directed to make drawings and illustrations of shipyard work and life, and this requirement for realistic documentation strongly affected his later style. Later in the war, classified as a “camoufleur,” Benton had to draw camouflaged ships that came into Norfolk harbor. His work was required for several reasons: to ensure that U.S. ship painters were correctly applying the camouflage schemes, to aid in identifying U.S. ships that might later be lost, and to have records of the ship camouflage of other Allied navies. Benton later said that his work for the Navy “was the most important thing, so far, I had ever done for myself as an artist.”
People of Chilmark (Figure Composition), 1920, in the Hirshhorn Museum collection, Washington, D.C. Marriage and familyBenton married Rita Piacenza, an Italian immigrant, in 1922. They met while Benton was teaching art classes for a neighborhood organization in New York City, where she was one of his students. The couple had a son, Thomas Piacenza Benton, born in 1926, and a daughter, Jessie Benton, born in 1939. They were married for 53 years until Thomas’s death in 1975. Rita died ten weeks after her husband.
 Dedication to RegionalismOn his return to New York in the early 1920s, Benton declared himself an “enemy of modernism”; he began the naturalistic and representational work today known as Regionalism. Benton was active in leftist politics. He expanded the scale of his Regionalist works, culminating in his America Today murals at the New School for Social Research in 1930-31. These now hang in the lobby of the AXA building at 1290 Sixth Avenue in New York City. He was strongly influenced by the works of the Spanish artist El Greco.
Benton broke through to the mainstream in 1932. A relative unknown, he won a commission to paint the murals of Indiana life that were the state’s contribution to the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, Illinois. The Indiana Murals stirred controversy; Benton painted everyday people, but he included a portrayal of the state’s history that included some aspects which people did not want publicized. For instance, his work was criticized by some for portraying Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members in full regalia. This was within a decade of the KKK’s having reached its peak of 20th-century membership and political influence in the state. The mural panels are now displayed at Indiana University in Bloomington, with the majority hung in the “Hall of Murals” at Indiana University Auditorium. Four additional panels are displayed in the former University Theatre (now the Indiana Cinema) connected to the Auditorium. Two panels, including the one with images of the KKK, are located in a lecture classroom at Woodburn Hall.
In 1932, Benton also painted The Arts of Life in America, a set of large murals for an early site of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Major panels include Arts of the City, Arts of the West, Arts of the South and Indian Arts. Five of the panels were purchased by the New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut, in 1953 and are on view there.
On December 24, 1934, Benton was featured on one of the earliest color covers of Time magazine. Benton’s work was featured along with that of fellow Midwesterners Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry in an article entitled “The U.S. Scene”. The trio were featured as the new heroes of American art, and Regionalism was described as a significant art movement.
In 1935, after he 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” Benton left the artistic debates of New York for Missouri. He was commissioned to create a mural for the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. A Social History of Missouri is perhaps Benton’s greatest work. As with his earlier murals, there was controversy over his portrayal of history: he included subjects of slavery, the Missouri outlaw Jesse James and political boss Tom Pendergast. With his return to Missouri, Benton embraced the Regionalist art movement.
He settled in Kansas City, Missouri and accepted a teaching job at the Kansas City Art Institute. Kansas City afforded Benton greater access to rural America, which was changing rapidly. Benton’s sympathy was with the working class and the small farmer, unable to gain material advantage despite the Industrial Revolution. His works often show the melancholy, desperation and beauty of small-town life. In the late 1930s, he created some of his best-known work, including the iconic allegorical nude Persephone, which for a while hung in Billy Rose’s nightclub, the Diamond Horseshoe. It is now held by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. In 1937, he published his critically acclaimed autobiography, An Artist in America. The writer Sinclair Lewis said: “Here’s a rare thing, a painter who can write.” During this period, Benton also began to produce signed, limited edition lithographs, which were sold at $5.00 each through the Associated American Artists Galleries.
 Benton as teacherBenton taught at the Art Students League of New York from 1926 to 1935 and at the Kansas City Art Institute from 1935 to 1941. His most famous student, Jackson Pollock, whom he mentored in the Art Students League, would diverge from Benton’s style and found the Abstract Expressionist movement. Pollock often said that Benton’s traditional teachings gave him something to rebel against.
Benton’s students in New York and Kansas City included many painters who would make significant contributions to American art. They included Pollock’s brother Charles Pollock, Charles Banks Wilson, Frederic James, Lamar Dodd, Reginald Marsh, Charles Green Shaw, Margot Peet, Jackson Lee Nesbitt, Roger Medearis, Glenn Gant, Fuller Potter, and Delmer J. Yoakum. Benton also briefly taught Dennis Hopper at the Kansas City Art Institute; Hopper was later known for being a rebellious actor, filmmaker, and photographer.