Thomas Hart Benton (painter)

Thomas Hart Benton (painter)

Infobox Artist
bgcolour = #6495ED
name = Thomas Hart Benton

imagesize =
caption = Thomas Hart Benton
birthname =
birthdate = birth date |1889|4|15|
location = Neosho, Missouri
deathdate = death date and age |1975|1|19|1889|4|15|
deathplace =
nationality = American
field = Painting
training =
movement =
works =
patrons =
influenced by =
influenced =
awards =

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 perhaps best associated with the Midwest, he created scores of paintings of New York - where he lived for over 20 years, Martha’s Vineyard - where he summered for much of his adult life, the American South and the American West.

Life and work

Early years

Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri, into an influential clan of politicians and powerbrokers. Benton's father Maecenas Benton was a lawyer and United States congressman, and his namesake and great-uncle Thomas Hart Benton was one of the first two United States Senators from Missouri.

Benton spent his childhood shuttling between Washington D.C. and Missouri. Benton rebelled against his grooming for a future political career, preferring 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, France in 1909 to continue his art education at the Académie Julian. In Paris, Benton met other North American artists such as Diego Rivera and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, an advocate of Synchromism. Wright's influence gave a strong Synchromist leaning to Benton's work.

Benton returned to New York City in 1913 and continued painting. His work as a draftsman in the United States Navy in 1919 changed his style significantly. His artwork during his navy stint concentrated on realistic sketches and drawings of shipyard work and life—a change of focus that would continue throughout Benton's career.


On return to New York in the early 1920s, Benton declared himself an "enemy of modernism" and 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. He was heavily influenced by El Greco.

In 1932 Benton broke through to the mainstream. A relative unknown, he was chosen to produce the murals of Indiana life that would become that state's contribution to the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, Illinois. The "Indiana Murals" stirred controversy; Benton painted everyday people but did not sugarcoat the state’s history, and many criticized the work for including Ku Klux Klan members in full regalia. The mural panels are currently displayed at Indiana University in Bloomington with the majority on display in the "Hall of Murals" at Indiana University Auditorium. Four additional panels are displayed in the former University Theatre which is connected to the Auditorium. The final two panels, including the most controversial panel, with images of the Ku Klux Klan, are located in a lecture classroom at Woodburn Hall.

On December 24, 1934, Benton was featured on the first color cover of "Time" magazine. Benton’s work was featured along with fellow Midwesterners Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry in an article titled “The U.S. Scene”. The article portrayed the trio as the new heroes of American art and cemented Regionalism as a significant art movement.

In 1935 Benton left the heated artistic debates of New York for Missouri, where Benton had agreed to create a mural for the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. A "Social History of Missouri" is perhaps Benton’s greatest work. But it, like his previous murals, caused controversy with its focus on subjects like Missouri outlaw Jesse James, slavery, and political boss Tom Pendergast. Benton used his return to Missouri to embrace 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 the rural America then disappearing. 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 1930’s, he created some of his best known work, including the iconic allegorical nude Persephone, which famously hung in Billy Rose’s nightclub, the Diamond Horseshoe. In 1937, he published his critically acclaimed autobiography, "An Artist in America", which was praised by Sinclair Lewis: “Here’s a rare thing, a painter who can write.” During this period, Benton also began to produce signed, limited edition lithographs that were made available to the public at $5.00 each through the Associated American Artists Galleries.

Benton as teacher

Benton 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 go on to found the Abstract Expressionist movement—wildly different from Benton's own style. Jackson Pollock often said that Benton's traditional teachings gave him something to rebel against. However, art scholars have recognized the Pollock’s organizational principles continued to follow Benton’s teachings even after his move away from realism, with forms composed around a central vertical pole with each form counterbalanced by an equal and opposite form.

Benton's students in New York and Kansas City included many painters who would make significant contributions to American art. Among the dozens of other artists Benton impacted as a teacher were Pollock’s brother Charles Pollock, Charles Banks Wilson, Frederic James, Lamar Dodd, Reginald Marsh, Robert MacDonald Graham, Charles Green Shaw, William Wind McKim, Margot Peet, Jackson Lee Nesbitt, Roger Medearis, Aaron Pyle, Glenn Gant, Albert Pels, Fuller Potter, Fred Shane, Delmer J. Yoakum and Daniel Celentano. [Under the Influence: The Students of Thomas Hart Benton. Marianne Berardi. The Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art. 1993.]

In 1941, Benton was dismissed from the Art Institute after calling the typical art museum "a graveyard run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists and a swing in his gait" with further disparaging references to, as he claimed, the excessive influence of homosexuals in the art world. [ cite news | date=1941-04-14 | publisher=Time | title=Benton Hates Museums | url=,9171,932248,00.html | accessdate=2007-07-29]

Later life

During World War II, Benton created a widely distributed series titled The Year of Peril, which brought into focus the threat to American ideals by fascism and Nazism. Following the war, Regionalism fell from favor, eclipsed by the rise of Abstract Expressionism. [ cite web | url= | publisher=New Britain Museum of American Art | title=Thomas Hart Benton Biography | accessdate=2007-07-29] Benton remained active for another 30 years, but his work focused less on social commentary and more on creating stylized bucolic images of pre-industrial farmlands. He also painted a number of murals, including "Lincoln" (1953) at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, "Trading At Westport Landing" (1956) at The River Club in Kansas City, "Father Hennepin at Niagara Falls" (1961) for the Power Authority of the State of New York, "Turn of the Century, Joplin" (1972) in Joplin, Missouri, and "Independence and the Opening of The West" at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. His work on the Truman Library mural initiated a friendship with the former U.S. President that lasted for the rest of their lives. Benton died in 1975 at work in his studio, just as he completed his final mural, "The Sources of Country Music" for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1977, Benton's 2-1/2 story Victorian residence and carriage house studio in Kansas City officially became the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site. The site remains virtually unchanged, with clothing, furniture, and paint brushes still in place since Benton's death and is open for guided tours. The site also displays 13 original works of Benton's art. [ [ "Kansas City Attractions: Thomas Hart Benton Home", The New York Times] , article excerpted from: "Frommer's USA", 10th Edition, 2007, ISBN 978-0-470-04726-2]

Personal Life

Benton met and married Rita Piacenza, an Italian immigrant, in 1922. They met while Benton was teaching art classes for a neighborhood organization in New York City and she was one of his students. They were married for 53 years until Thomas's death in 1975. Rita passed away ten weeks after her husband. The couple had a son Thomas Piacenza Benton born 1926 and a daughter Jessie Benton born 1939.

ee also

*Social Realism
*American modernism
*American realism



*cite book
last= Adams
first= Henry
title= Thomas Hart Benton: an American original
publisher= Alfred A. Knopf
year= 1989
isbn= 0-394-57153-3

*cite book
last= Benton
first= Thomas Hart
title= An Artist in America
publisher= University of Missouri Press
year= 1983
isbn= 0-826-20399-X

*cite book
last= Benton
first= Thomas Hart
title= An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography
publisher= Univ Pr of Kansas
year= 1969
isbn= 0-700-60005-1

External links

* [,16641,19341224,00.html TIME] cover (self-portrait), dated December 24, 1934 - caption reads "Thomas Benton's Thomas Benton"
* [,9171,711633,00.html TIME] accompanying cover story of December 24, 1934, entitled "U.S. Scene"
* [ The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art] , holder of the largest concentration of Benton's works, including his masterpiece "Persephone"
* [ Truman Museum and Library]
* [ "Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press" in its Contexts] from Indiana University
* [ Columbus Museum of Art] Web page on Benton's lithograph "Strike" (click on picture for larger version)
* [ Thomas Hart Benton and the Indiana Murals]
* [ Missouri State Parks & Historic Sites: Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site]
* [ Photographs of Benton; Benton with his wife and son] by Nickolas Muray (scroll down)

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  • Thomas Hart Benton (senator) — Infobox Senator name=Thomas Hart Benton jr/sr=United States Senator state=Missouri party=Democratic Republican, Democratic term start=August 10, 1821 term end=March 3, 1851 preceded= (none) succeeded=Henry S. Geyer date of birth=birth… …   Wikipedia

  • Thomas Hart Benton — noun 1. United States artist whose paintings portrayed life in the Midwest and South (1889 1975) • Syn: ↑Benton • Instance Hypernyms: ↑painter 2. United States legislator who opposed the use of paper currency (1782 1858) • Syn: ↑Benton, ↑Old B …   Useful english dictionary

  • Benton, Thomas Hart — I born April 15, 1889, Neosho, Mo., U.S. died Jan. 19, 1975, Kansas City, Mo. U.S. painter and muralist. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Académie Julian in Paris, where he came into contact with Synchromism and Cubism. In… …   Universalium

  • Thomas Benton — can refer to:*Thomas Hart Benton (painter) *Thomas Hart Benton (senator), U.S. Senator from Missouri and great uncle of the painter of the same name *Thomas Benton, mythical folk character from the area of Benton, New Hampshire, and nearby Mount… …   Wikipedia

  • Benton (surname) — Benton is a surname, and may refer to:Family name name=Benton *Al Benton, American baseball player *Arthur L. Benton, American neuropsychologist *Barbi Benton, American model and actress *Bernard Benton, boxer *Brook Benton (1931 1988), American… …   Wikipedia

  • Benton — /ben tn/, n. 1. Thomas Hart ( Old Bullion ), 1782 1858, U.S. political leader. 2. his grandnephew Thomas Hart, 1889 1975, U.S. painter and lithographer. 3. a city in central Arkansas. 17,437. * * * (as used in expressions) Benton Thomas Hart… …   Universalium

  • Benton — noun 1. United States artist whose paintings portrayed life in the Midwest and South (1889 1975) • Syn: ↑Thomas Hart Benton • Instance Hypernyms: ↑painter 2. United States legislator who opposed the use of paper currency (1782 1858) • Syn:… …   Useful english dictionary

  • Benton — [ben′tən] 1. Thomas Hart 1782 1858; U.S. senator (1821 51) 2. Thomas Hart 1889 1975; U.S. painter; grandnephew of the senator …   English World dictionary

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