Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975)

Painter and Muralist who was at the Forefront of the Regionalist Art Movement

By Amy Spencer

Benton’s paintings were widely loved for their reassuring images of the American heartland during two World Wars and the Great Depression.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

Thomas Hart Benton is best known for his patriotic murals that heroically depict American life during the first half of the 20th century. Born into a prominent Mid-western family of politicians, Benton grew up moving between rural Missouri and the political arena of Washington D.C.. Rejecting his grooming as a future politician, Benton developed an interest in art at an early age. Despite this rebellion, over the course of Benton’s painting career, his outspoken comments, nationalistic views, and socially charged images, marked him as a politician’s son. At the peak of his career in the 1930s, Benton was a key member of the Regionalist movement along with fellow Midwestern artists, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry.

Thomas Hart Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri in 1889. He was named for his great-uncle, the five-term serving first Missouri senator. Many of Benton’s other family members were 19th century political luminaries, and as a child Benton’s drawings reflected his upbringing surrounded by old political frontiersmen; his favorite subjects were Native Americans and railroads.

After graduating from high school Benton enrolled at Chicago Art Institute in 1907, where he took up painting. In 1909, Benton travelled to Paris to continue his art studies at the Académie Julian. In France, Benton met expatriate artists such as John Marin, Jacob Epstein, André Lhote, Leon Kroll, Diego Rivera, Morgan Russell, and Stanton Macdonald-Wright. The influence of these artists saw Benton’s early works explore a range of Modernist styles; Impressionism, Pointillism, Synchromism, and Constructivism.

Benton returned to America to settle in New York City in 1913. He had his first series of works shown at Anderson Gallery in 1916 in the ‘Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painting’. His paintings from this exhibition show highly generalized experimentations with color and form – evocative of Russell and Macdonald-Wright’s theories of Synchromism – although Benton never completely abandons representational imagery.

During World War I, Benton served in the U.S. Navy based at Norfolk, Virginia. Benton’s job in the navy was to sketch the activities of the shipyard, and to create drawings of camouflaged ships that came into harbor (for the purpose of identifying them if they were destroyed). During his two years in Nolfolk, Benton spent his evenings reading American history texts. After he was discharged in 1919, Benton returned to New York City, where he had an exhibition of his Navel Base drawings at Daniel Galleries.

In 1922, Benton married Rita Piacenza. The couple had a son, Thomas Piacenza Benton in 1926. The same year Benton started working as a teacher at the Art Students League (his most notable student was Jackson Pollock). Benton and Piacenza had a daughter, Jessie, in 1939.

In 1924, Benton published the essay, ‘Form and the Subject’.[1] This essay signified the beginning of Benton’s break from the Modernist movement. His future work moved determinedly away from abstraction, as he utilized the objective drawing skills he had developed while in the Navy. Benton’s first ambitious project in this new mode was to create a series of paintings that would chart American history and culture. Every summer between 1925 and 1928, as research for this project, Benton set out exploring the countryside searching for all that was quintessentially American. Walking fifteen to twenty miles per day, Benton wandered through the Eastern states; New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania; the Midwest, and further afield to Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee.

The American Historical Epic series, born from Benton’s travels, was exhibited at the Architectural League in the mid-1920s. These bold large-mural size works were quite controversial, as their monumental sculptural figures were in opposition with modern theories that promoted a large-canvas should remain relatively flat so as to harmonize with the wall (as championed by Frank Lloyd Wright). Benton’s three-dimensional effects oppose this idea, as his figures appear to push out of the canvas and into the room with the spectator.

Following The American Historical Epic, Benton became heavily involved with public and private commissions, as his nationalistic images translated into popular murals. Benton’s first commission was to create murals for the New School for Social Research’s first building at 66 West 12th Street in New York in 1931. This project, entitled Modern America, was both widely praised and criticized. Benton’s next project, murals for the library at the Whitney Museum of American Art created in 1932, was equally controversial. Some socially radical groups attacked the work for being too provincial, however favorable press reviews praised Benton for speaking “the plain language of the Midwest”.[2] (When the Whitney moved venues in 1954, Benton’s library murals were given to New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut.)

In 1933, Benton created murals of Indiana life for the Chicago World’s Fair. These murals represent Benton’s breakthrough into the mainstream public consciousness; they were very well received although some criticism was directed at Benton’s decision to depict Ku Klux Klan members. The following year, Benton exhibited with Wood and Steuart Curry at Ferargil Galleries in New York. This exhibition confirmed these artists as the key proponents of Regionalism, as defined by the artists’ expressions of nationalism and romanticism conveyed through realistic depictions of everyday American life. Benton was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1934.

In 1935, Benton was offered a job as head of the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute. He accepted and moved to Missouri, seeing it as a chance to escape all the controversy he has caused in New York. While living Missouri, Benton was highly productive outside his teaching schedule. Highlights of Benton’s career over the next six years include producing his most famous mural, A Social History of Missouri (1937) for the Missouri State Capitol, illustrating numerous books and magazine articles, and having several exhibitions of his paintings in Chicago, Kansas City, and New York.

Over the course of his career, Benton had a tendency for making pugnacious statements, as he admitted he enjoyed deliberately stirring up the press and art establishment. In 1941, Benton made some remarks at an informal press conference about the staff at the Kansas City Art Institute that led to him being dismissed from the school. After this incident, Benton moved away from social commentary, and spent the last years of his career painting stylized images of pre-industrial farms and landscapes. Significant late-career mural commissions include Lincoln (1953) at Lincoln University; Old Kansas City (1956) for the Kansas City River Club; Father Hennepin at Niagara Falls (1961) for the New York Power Authority; Turn of the Century, Joplin (1972) in Joplin, Missouri; and The Sources of Country Music (1975) at the Country Museum Hall of Fame.

Benton died in his studio in 1975. In 1977, his residence in Kansas City became the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site.

As a central figure of the Regionalist movement, Benton created an endearing pictorial history of American culture and society during the 1930s and 1940s, as he used his art to elevate the everyday experiences of people and places into monumental events. Benton’s paintings are collected by every major museum of American art, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Gallery, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

II. Chronology

1889 Born in Neosho, Newton County, Missouri
Great-uncle is Thomas Hart Benton, the five-term serving Missouri senator
1900-04 As a teenager becomes interested in the Old American West, after meeting Buffalo Bill and Geronimo, and seeing works by Frederic Remington
1907 Enrolls at the Institute of Chicago to study painting
1909 Travels to Paris to study at Académie Julian
While in France meets Marin, Jacob Epstein, André Lhote, Leon Kroll, Diego Rivera, Morgan Russell, and Stanton Macdonald-Wright
1912 Moves to New York City
For a few years struggles to make a living from painting
1916 First paintings shown in the ‘Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painting’ held at Anderson Galleries
Begins to sell the occasional picture
Joins the People’s Art Guild
1917 Enlists in the Navy, stationed in Norfolk, Virginia
Develops representational style drawing scenes of the Navel Base
1922 Marries Rita Piacenza
1924 Publishes first paper, ‘Form and the Subject’, Arts Magazine, June
1926 Takes first of many trips through rural and small-town America, searching for subjects for his paintings
Begins teaching at the Art Students League, New York
1931 First mural commission, Modern America, completed for the New School in New York City
Meets John Steuart Curry and forms lasting friendship with him
1932 Completed murals for the library at the Whitney Museum of American Art
1933 Exhibited murals covering the theme of social evolution in Indiana at the Chicago Word’s Fair, they are well received although some criticism is directed at Benton’s depiction of Ku Klux Klan members in full regalia
1934 Meets Grant Wood
Has exhibition with Wood and Curry at Ferargil Galleries that is catalyst for these artists being known as key members of the Regionalist movement
1935 Begins teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute
1937 Paints most famous mural, A Social History of Missouri (1937), for the Missouri State Capitol
1941 Is fired from the Kansas City Art Institute after making disparaging references about other staff members in a press interview
Illustrates Grapes of Wrath and Huckberry Finn for Limited Editions
1946 Works with Walt Disney on American operetta, abandons project after realizing has different vision for the project than Disney
1949 Returns to Europe, visiting Italy and France (visits again in 1952)
1953 Paints the mural Lincoln at Lincoln University
1954 Visits Spain on a study trip
1956 Completes Old Kansas City for the Kansas City River Club
1961 Mural, Father Hennepin at Niagara Falls, is revealed at the New York Power Authority
1972 Mural, Turn of the Century, Joplin, is completed in Joplin, Missouri
1975 Finishes last mural, The Sources of Country Music, at the Country Museum Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee
Dies while painting in his studio

III. Collections

Addison Gallery of American Art, MA
Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, MO
Arkell Museum at Canajoharie, NY
Art Gallery at the University of Maryland, MD
Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Asheville Art Museum, NC
Ball State Museum of Art, IN
Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, IL
Brooklyn Museum, NY
Canton Museum of Art, OH
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, AK
Cummer Museum of Art, FL
Currier Gallery of Art, NH
Dallas Museum of Art, TX
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA
Gibbes Museum of Art, SC
Harvard University Art Museums, MA
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, DC
Hofstra University Museum, NY
Hunter Museum of American Art, TN
Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN
Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, NY
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, MO
Los Angeles County Museum, CA
Maier Museum of Art at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, VA
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, NY
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, TN
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Minnesota Museum of American Art, MN
Mint Museum of Art, NC
Montclair Art Museum, NY
Museum of Fine Arts, MA
Museum of Fine Arts, TX
Museum of Nebraska Art at the University of Nebraska, NE
National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts, NY
National Gallery of Art, DC
National Portrait Gallery, DC
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, MO
New Britain Museum of American Art, CT
Oklahoma City Museum of Art, OK
Orlando Museum of Art, FL
Phillips Collection, DC
Pomona College Museum of Art, CA
Princeton University Art Museum., NJ
Ringling Museum of Art, FL
Sheldon Art Gallery, NE
Sioux City Art Center, IA
Smithsonian American Art Museum, DC
Smithsonian Archives of American Art, DC
Southern Alleghenies Museum, PA
Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, KS
Swope Art Museum, IN
Tampa Museum of Art, FL
Terra Foundation for American Art, IL
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, Spain
Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota, MN
U.S. Library of Congress, DC
U.S. Navy Art Collection, DC
Westmoreland Museum of American Art, PA
Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
Wichita Art Museum, KS
Yale University Art Gallery, CT

IV. Exhibitions

1916 Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painting, Anderson Galleries, New York, NY
1918 Daniel Galleries, New York, NY
1922 Exhibition of Modern Americans, Philadelphia, PA
1934 Ferargil Galleries, New York, NY
1939 William Rockhill Nelson Gallery, Kansas City, MO
Associated American Artists’ New Galleries, New York, NY
1946 Associated American Artists’ New Galleries, Chicago, IL
1951 Joslyn Museum, Omaha, NE
1966 Illinois College, Jacksonville, IL
1985 Thomas Hart Benton: Chronicler of America's Folk Heritage, Queens Museum of Art, New York, NY
1989 Thomas Hart Benton, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
1999 America at Work 1945, Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY
2003 Bridging the Border: Shared Themes in Mexican and U.S. Art 1900-1950, Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA
2005 The Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890-1950, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
2006 The John and Mary Lou Pacton Collection, Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, NV
A Celebration of New York, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, NM
2007 Modernisms, Whitney Museum of Art, New York, NY
2008 Paradigms and the Unexpected: Modern and Contemporary Art from the Shey Collection, Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, Gainesville, FL

V. Memberships

People’s Art Guild
Honorary Member, Argentine Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes
Honorary Member, L’Accademia Fiorentian delle Arti del Disegno (Florence)
Honorary Member, Accademia Senese degli Intronati (Siena)

VI. Notes

1. Benton, Thomas Hart, ‘Form and the Subject’, Arts, (5) 6, June 1924, pp. 303-308.
2. ‘Painters Deny Whitney Art Perils Child’, New York Evening Journal, November 9, 1934.

VII. Suggested Resources

Adams, Henry, Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
Benton, Thomas Hart, An Artist in America, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1968
Burroughs, Polly, Thomas Hart Benton: A Portrait, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1981.