Thomas Hart Benton (painter)

Dafato Team | Jul 20, 2023

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Thomas Hart Benton (born April 15, 1889 in Neosho, Missouri, United States, died January 19, 1975 in Kansas City) is an American painter and muralist, one of the leading representatives of the American scene painting movement, along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry. He is best known for his patriotic murals, depicting American life in the first half of the 20th century in a heroic manner. Great-nephew of the well-known politician of the same name. Lecturer at the Art Students League in New York; among his most famous students was Jackson Pollock.

Early years

Thomas Hart Benton was born the son of Congressman Maecenas and Elizabeth Wise Benton, known as Lizzie. He was named after his maternal grandfather, a Missouri state senator. Politicians were also among other members of the Benton family, and as a child Thomas Hart made drawings referring to his upbringing surrounded by old settler-politicians; his favorite motifs were Indians and railroads. In 1896 Maecenas Eason Benton was elected to Congress, and that same year he moved with his family to Washington. Young Thomas liked the works of art he saw there; he especially liked the murals adorning the Library of Congress. Influenced by them, he decided to become a muralist. He also learned to draw caricatures by studying cartoons in The Washington Post. In 1904 Maecenas Eason Benton lost the election, so the whole family returned to Missouri. In 1906, Thomas Hart Benton left the family home and went to Joplin, where he was employed as an artist at a local newspaper.

In 1907, Benton moved to Chicago, where he took a painting class at the art school at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1909, he went to Paris to continue his art studies at the Académie Julian. In France, he met American artists such as John Marin, Leon Kroll, Diego Rivera, Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, and European artists (André Lhote, Jacob Epstein). Their influence was evident in Benton's early works, in which he experimented with such styles as, impressionism, puentilism, synchromism and constructivism. While in Paris, Benton visited the Louvre, studying the works of the Italian Renaissance and Spanish masters there, especially El Greco. Returning to the United States, to Missouri, in 1911, he began painting in the Synchromist style. After eleven months at home in Neosho, Benton moved to New York. From 1912 to 1918, he worked as a professional artist, ceramic painter, set designer, gallery manager, director and art teacher. In addition, he was engaged as a historical consultant and portraitist for a fledgling film studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Benton first exhibited his work in 1916 at the Anderson Gallery's Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painting. His paintings from this exhibition show very generalized experiments with color and form, associated with the synchromistic theories of Russell and MacDonald- Wright, although the artist did not completely abandon the assumptions of figurative art. During World War I, he served in the US Navy, based in Norfolk, Virginia. His job was to document with drawings the activities of the shipyards, including making drawings of ships coming into port (in order to identify them if they were destroyed). After his discharge from the service in 1919, he returned to New York, where he had an exhibition at Daniel Galleries of his drawings made at the Norfolk base. These drawings were his first works devoted to American subjects. Most of Benton's work from this period was lost in a fire that destroyed his studio.


Since Benton was unsuccessful within the framework of modernism, he abandoned it, and around 1920 became one of the leading representatives of regionalism. The influence of Diego Rivera, who used vivid colors and depicted social reality, proved important for the development of the new style.

In 1922, Benton married Rita Piacenza. The couple lived to see two children: son Thomas Piacenza Benton (born 1926) and daughter Jessie (born 1939).

In 1925 Benton accepted a faculty position at the Art Students League of New York. He remained there until 1935. During this period, he taught several early students of Abstract Expressionism, including Charles Green Shaw, Jackson Pollock and his brother Charles Pollock.

In 1924 Benton published the essay Form and the Subject, which marked the beginning of his break with the modernist movement. In his future works, he consistently moved away from abstraction; at the same time, he began to use his experience as a draftsman, gained while serving in the Navy. His first ambitious project became the creation of a series of paintings devoted to American history and culture. Seeking a typically American subject for this project, he traveled through the various states during the summer seasons of 1925-1928: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Midwest, Texas, Arkansas and Tennessee. The result of these expeditions was the American Historical Epic series, exhibited at the Architectural League in the mid-1920s. The works included in the series received a controversial reception due to the monumental, sculptural figures filling them, whose presence conflicted with the theories of the time, according to which a large-format canvas should remain relatively flat to harmonize with the wall.


Benton's painting of paintings described as regionalist followed his alignment with leftist circles. The artist referred to the achievements of the Ashcan School, an unequivocally American movement that made American art independent of the aesthetic influences of European art seeking international recognition. The American scene painting movement of the 1930s took up the Ashcan School's challenges of depicting everyday life in America in a representational and accessible way. Modern art historians generally consider regionalism to be a current within american scene painting, concerned more directly with bringing art into the public realm to evoke nostalgia for pre-industrial America. Social realism, another current of American scene painting, emphasized more the role of art as a vehicle for political and social criticism. Important regionalists besides Benton included Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry. These painters mainly gained prominence through federally funded New Deal art projects, and their work reflected a desire to appeal to the public aesthetic.

In the 1930s, Benton received a number of commissions, both public and private, to create murals with nationalist themes. The first of these was the creation of a mural for the New School for Social Research building in New York in 1931. The project, titled Modern America, was both praised and criticized. Benton's next project, murals for the library at the Whitney Museum of American Art, done in 1932, also stirred controversy. After the library was moved in 1954, Benton's murals were donated to the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain. In 1933, Benton made Indiana-themed murals, the Indiana Murals, for the World Exposition in Chicago. They proved groundbreaking in terms of the mainstream public's perception of his style and were well received, although some criticized the artist's decision to depict Ku Klux Klan members.

Also in 1933, journalist and art dealer Maynard Walker, a committed promoter of American realism, organized an exhibition at the Kansas City Art Institute entitled "American Painting Since Whistler," which featured paintings by Benton, Curry and Wood. In the introduction to the catalog accompanying the exhibition, Walker appealed to collectors to support this art; the idea of patriotic American art upholding sound "American values "was also enthusiastically endorsed by Henry Luce in Time magazine. The cover of Time's 1934 Christmas issue featured Benton's illustration, and inside were color reproductions and flattering reviews of other regionalist art.

In 1934, Benton exhibited with Wood and Steuart Curry at Ferargil Galerie in New York. This exhibition cemented their position as major exhibitors of regionalism. In 1935 Benton took over as head of the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute. While living in Missouri, he painted his best-known murals, including his most famous one, A Social History of Missouri, painted in 1937 for the Missouri State Capitol. In addition to painting murals, Benton illustrated numerous books and magazine articles and participated in exhibitions in Chicago, Kansas City and New York. In 1941, after making unflattering remarks about the staff of the Kansas City Art Institute, he was dismissed from his position.

1940s and beyond

After the end of World War II, interest in regionalism waned; this also applied to Benton's position. Abstract Expressionism began to dominate the American art world, many of whose artists were recruited from among Benton's former students in the Art Students League.

Benton devoted the last years of his career to painting stylized paintings of pre-industrial revolution farms and landscapes. His murals from this period include Lincoln (1953) done for Lincoln University in Jefferson City, 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) for the City of Joplin, and The Sources of Country Music (1975) for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.

Benton died while working in his studio in 1975. In 1977, his Kansas City estate gained historic status as the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site. The building houses the artist's memorabilia and paintings, providing a glimpse into his life and creative work. Benton converted half of the carriage house into his studio, which has been preserved as he left it. There are coffee cans filled with brushes, numerous paints and stretched canvases on stretchers.

Benton has written two autobiographies:

By operating with strong contrasts of light and dark and using intense and vivid forms, Benton created canvases bursting with energy. Although he mainly depicted scenes of small-town life, he also did not shy away from biblical and mythological scenes, but even in these he placed typically American characters. Benton was a supporter of native art. He rejected European modernism, calling it "aesthetic colonialism." He became a central figure in the regionalist movement. Through art, he elevated the everyday experiences of people and places to monumental events; the images he painted form an engaging history of American culture and society in the 1930s and 1940s. His best-known and also most controversial work, Indiana Murals, exemplifies both regionalist style and social commentary.

Dorobek Bentona to ponad 4 000 prac. Znajdują się one we wszystkich głównych muzeach sztuki amerykańskiej, w tym: Addison Gallery of American Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Baltimore Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, Columbus Museum of Art, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Harvard University Art Museums, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Indianapolis Museum of Art, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Joslyn Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts w Bostonie, Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art, National Portrait Gallery w Waszyngtonie, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, New Britain Museum of American Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Phillips Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery, Whitney Museum of American Art, Yale University Art Gallery oraz w ośrodkach badawczych: Archives of American Art i Biblioteka Kongresu.


  1. Thomas Hart Benton (painter)
  2. Thomas Hart Benton (malarz)
  3. ^ WETA (2002). "Thomas Hart Benton: Timeline". PBS. Retrieved September 15, 2011.
  4. ^ a b c d e f WETA (2010), Thomas Hart Benton: Benton Profile, PBS, retrieved September 15, 2011.
  5. Według theArtStoryorg Thomas Hart Benton zmarł na wyspie Martha’s Vineyard w stanie Massachusetts.
  6. RKDartists (нидерл.)
  7. Thomas Hart Benton // Encyclopædia Britannica (англ.)
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