Thomas Hart Benton - Biography and Legacy
American Painter and Muralist
Kansas City, Missouri
Biography of Thomas Hart Benton
Thomas Hart Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri in 1889 into a family of prominent politicians committed to political republicanism and populism. His father was a congressman, and his great-uncle, for whom he was named, was an important US senator. Benton later recalled that, "Politics was the core of our family life." Through his art, in particular his murals, Benton sought to continue his family's support of 19th-century political republicanism, upholding the producers of society, and scornful of big business and big banks. Expected to follow his family's well-trodden path, instead, with his mother's encouragement he chose to study art. Starting at age seventeen he worked as a cartoonist for a local paper. Escaping the confines of small town life and rebelling against the stifling expectations of his family, Benton moved to Chicago where he enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago in 1907, studying under Frederick Oswald.
After two years at the Art Institute, in 1909, he chose the familiar path traveled by numerous other American artists and relocated to Paris to study at the famed Academie Julian. While in Paris, he became acquainted with the great Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, and also, was greatly inspired by the American painter Stanton Macdonald-Wright, the founder of Synchromism. Benton settled in New York City upon his return in 1913, the same year as the famed Armory Show. In the 1910s, he experimented with several modern styles including Synchromism, which stressed the musical qualities of color. He was greatly influenced by the compositional strategies of Cézanne. A fire that broke out in his studio destroyed much of his early experimentations and work.
During World War I, Benton was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, where he served as an architectural draftsman and painted camouflage for the Navy. In his free time he read American history and sketched local scenes of shipyard life. The Navy's requirement for artistic realism and documentation strongly impacted on his later style. Up until this time he had struggled to find an artistic identity. It was his turn to depictions of everyday life of American and its people in a representational style that announced Benton's emergence as a mature artist. Because of his interest in American history and his family's deep roots in Missouri, Benton soon chose the American Historical Epic as a theme; his elongated figuration showing the influence of El Greco.
Upon his return to New York in the early 1920s, he unabashedly announced himself to be an "enemy of modernism," while simultaneously incorporating modernist aesthetics into his work. Like many artists during the 1920s and 30s, Benton was involved with the political left and leftist artists' groups such as the John Reed Club. His early work as a muralist capitulated Benton into the public eye. In 1930, New York's famed New School of Social Research commissioned Benton to paint a suite of murals entitled "American Today"; these now hang at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, Benton was heralded as one of the leaders of the Regionalist movement. The Regionalists were championed by Thomas Craven, a nativist and rabid anti-Semite, whose own bigoted views worked against the Regionalists. Despite his popularity, some critics downplayed Benton's artistic talents, disapproving of his allegedly provincial aesthetics and subject matter and his unabashed rejection of abstraction.
In 1925 the New York Art Students League hired Benton as an instructor, a post he held for ten years. While there, he taught some of the early practitioners of Abstract Expressionism. Among his students was Jackson Pollock, who stayed in contact with Benton for many years despite their aesthetic differences. Benton schooled Pollock in the rudiments of drawing and also, about the importance of the Old Masters. Benton expansive murals, along with those of José Clemente Orozco, may have influenced the large scale of Pollock's later drip paintings. The undulating rhythm within Pollock's early abstract works, emanating from a central vortex, relates back to lessons taught by Benton.
The 1930s proved fruitful for Benton. In 1932 he completed the Arts of Life in America murals for the Whitney Museum of American Art's library (now at the New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut), and in 1933 he completed a series of twenty-two mural panels titled the Cultural and Industrial History of Indiana, for the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago; these are now housed at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. In one panel, the artist defiantly portrayed the KKK's prominence in Indiana, which drew harsh criticism aimed at Benton. Attesting to his widespread popularity, Benton was featured on the cover of the December 24, 1934 issue of Time magazine. A year later, Benton-then at the height of his fame, took the opportunity to write an article in which he spuriously denounced the New York critics who had previously spurned him. That same year Benton abandoned New York in favor of a teaching position at the Kansas City Art Institute, marking his return to the Midwest.
During the late 1930s Benton completed numerous murals and individual canvases for various institutions across the country. Unfortunately, by the close of World War II, interest in Regionalism had waned and Benton could no longer lay claim to being one of America's vanguard artists. Abstract Expressionism was taking hold as the new force in the American art world.
Late Years and Death
Perhaps in reaction to his diminished spotlight, Benton was quite brash and vocal in his negative assessments of museums and their staffs, which only served to further ostracize him from the New York art world. Benton's creative output, however, was not to be stifled. He produced numerous works during the last decades of his life; only now his subject matter had shifted from large, epic narrative works, to simple landscapes and rural scenes. Benton still received commissions during his eighties. He died at the age of eighty-six in Kansas City, Missouri where he lived. His wife, Rita, died ten days later.
The Legacy of Thomas Hart Benton
Benton was one of the first American artists to combine modern aesthetic principles with long held academic constructs. Working as a Regionalist, he embraced the Midwest and its people as currency for his art work. His mural commissions predate the start of the New Deal Arts Program, and so, were influential to nascent muralists who likewise looked to the American scene and its people. Benton never worked for the federal projects thanks to his many mural commissions, and for his numerous illustrations for industry, publishing, and advertisements.
Often Benton is reduced to the role of "merely" being Jackson Pollock's teacher and the shift between them explained as generational progress. However, while Pollock claimed in his Oedipal battle with Benton that the elder artist served just as a force to rebel against, Pollock's own works show compositional similarities with those by Benton. Benton's characteristic machismo and hard-drinking was echoed later by Pollock, and several other male artists in the New York School of Abstract Expressionists. We would be hard-pressed to suggest a direct lineage of artists who followed in Benton's steps. Instead, we can consider Benton as having validated and encouraged the art of realism and representation.