Thomas Hart Benton Biography
American Regionalist artist Thomas Hart Benton is famous for his eye-catching murals, such as the controversial mural located in the Missouri State Capitol building entitled A Social History of the State of Missouri. This mural, finished in 1936, quickly became a popular stop in the state capitol building, as citizens and legislators alike marveled at Benton’s artistic skills and his daring interpretation of the state’s history. As Mary Scholz Guedon writes, with his primary interest lying in “rural, frontier America, Benton also painted the urban scene and became famous for his representations of modern American life” during the 1920s and 1930s. These fusions of urban and rural iconography, as well as those of historical and fictional events in Missouri’s past continue to draw visitors to see the Benton murals in the Missouri state capitol building every year.
The artist of A Social History of the State of Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton, was born in Neosho, Missouri in 1889, joining a family of lawyers and politicians. Due to the successful political career of his father, M.E. Benton, Thomas Hart Benton spent the majority of his childhood living in Washington, D.C., while his father served as a representative in the United States House of Representatives. During this time, Benton grew to realize that his personal interests did not match those of his family; visual art, rather than politics, appealed to him, so he took lessons at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. At the age of seventeen, after his father’s terms in the House of Representatives were over and the family had returned to Missouri, Benton received his first job in Joplin, Missouri, where he was a cartoonist for the small newspaper The Joplin American. This job was of great importance for Benton, as it was the first time he was allowed to pursue his artistic interests, while it also provided an outlet for his creative expressions.
In 1907, Benton enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago in order to pursue his artistic studies. It was here where Benton learned to paint, a skill that would contribute to the murals he would create later in his life. Although he had only enrolled the year before, Benton dropped out of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1908 to move to France, the place that he believed to be the center of the art world. In France he attended the Academie Julian 1 in Paris, where he learned French and attended classes exploring classic composition, perspective, and anatomy. He also explored many different artistic styles and techniques while at the Academie. Although the Academie Julian appeared to hold more interest for Benton than the Art Institute of Chicago had, shortly after enrolling, he grew frustrated with the methodology of teaching at the academy and dropped out, choosing instead to remain in Paris where he frequented the Louvre to copy famous artworks.
In 1912, Thomas Hart Benton, growing tired of living in Europe, chose to move to New York City, where he remained until 1935, with the exception of his brief entry into the Navy. Between the years of 1918 and 1919, Benton created numerous sketches of draftees in the Navy; it was at this point that he finally realized what he was comfortable creating artistically—scenes of people at their jobs and going about the duties of daily life. These drawings launched his career, allowing him to first display them in small public art galleries around the city of New York. As his art received more attention, slowly but surely, Thomas Hart Benton was gaining more recognition as an artist in the art world.
After the success of his sketches in 1919 and while still living in New York, Benton started his first series of murals, entitled The American Historical Epic. Benton’s interest in pioneer life showed through in the subject matter of these murals. As his fame spread, in 1932 the state of Indiana commissioned him to create a mural to for the Indiana Pavilion at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, entitledThe Cultural & Industrial Progress of Indiana. In this mural, one of Benton’s most well-known commissioned pieces, the artist aimed to transfer “his personal politics into public art and thus, he hoped, into the realm of national reform” (Doss 68). With a country deeply suffering during the Great Depression, Benton aspired to relate to the working class, and did so through the subject matter of the mural.
Soon after this commission, Missourians became aware of the rising artist who had been born in their state, and many Missouri citizens wanted their own mural for the Missouri State Capitol building in Jefferson City. The year 1934 began with the planning of the mural that would be created for the capitol. The chosen subject closely mirrored that of Benton’s mural in Indiana and was entitled A Social History of the State of Missouri. Again, Benton utilized rural and urban iconography, as well as historical and fictional scenes in the mural, all of which he hoped that Missourians would be familiar with. Out of this “social conscience, Benton sincerely believed in both the efficacy of New Deal politics and regionalist art to facilitate the sweeping social changes he felt were necessary in Depression America,” and he believed that such ideals behind his art would be most successful in producing change in his home state (Doss 68). The mural was completed in December of 1936, and soon after the completion, Benton ranked it among his best. Although much criticism was received regarding the controversial mural, eventually people grew to like and respect it, and it remains in the House Lounge of the Missouri State Capitol.
Benton continued to create artistic works after the Social History of the State of Missouri, including illustrations for Tom Sawyer and The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 and between 1940-2, respectively. Benton also went on to win prestigious awards, such as being made an honorary member of L’Accademia Fiorentina delle Arti del Disegno in Florence as well as an honorary member of Accademia Senese degli Intronati at Siena in 1949, following a trip to Europe during which Europeans marveled at Benton’s works. He continued to create murals all over the Midwest, including in Joplin and Kansas City for various patrons. At the time of his death on January 19, 1975, at the age of 85, Thomas Hart Benton was working on a mural for the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, entitled The Sources of Country Music. The mural, which was close to being complete, is now in Nashville, Tennessee and remains unsigned.
Regionalist artist Thomas Hart Benton is known for his murals, the most famous of which act as social commentaries for the time in which Benton lived and worked. Being exposed to politics throughout his childhood enabled Benton to create works of art that focused upon the working class, representing their needs and desires as a usually underrepresented group of people. Many of the murals he created dealt with subject matter commonly attributed to a Midwest lifestyle, including scenes of farming, allowing the artist to better relate to the people he often painted. Benton enjoyed a long career, with many milestones such as his famous murals, most of which were usually accompanied by turmoil. Thomas Hart Benton continued to work until his death in 1975, and his paintings are still viewed by millions each year in various locations around the nation.
1Established in 1868, Academie Julian was a prestigious private art academy in Paris. Members of the faculty at the institution were renowned for being great artists and were encouraged to pass on their abilities to their students. Many famous artists studied here, from John Singer Sargent to Henri Matisse.
Photo Credit: Missouri Division of State Parks