Thomas Hart Benton: Murals in the Missouri State Capitol
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Room Function

The House Lounge has been open to the public since the commission of the Benton murals in 1935 when visitors were allowed to observe the project in progress. With the exception of meetings scheduled by legislators, the lounge continues to remain open to the public. At the time the mural was painted legislators did not have their own offices, so the lounge served as a place for legislators to congregate. The room began to fall out of use as a lounge as committees and other organizations outgrew their old meeting rooms;  these rooms were then reclaimed one-by-one by legislators as offices.  Today the room functions primarily for the admiration of Benton’s most socially-charged work. To the north side of the House Lounge sits the office of the Speaker of the House (which controls room reservations), and to the south side the office for the Chairman of the Budget and Planning Committee.

The décor of the lounge may also be taken into consideration when assessing use and function. Some of the original furnishings included drapes with a satin-like finish and doors with glass inlays and also with some light woodworking around the margins. Today the doors have been replaced by more conservative, plain doors without glass or other decoration. The drapes have also been replaced by a sturdier, institutional fabric. This change in material may well have allowed for better viewing of the surrounding murals of life-sized corn stalks and industrial landscapes.

 

Commission of the Thomas Hart Benton Murals

In 1935, Thomas Hart Benton visited Missouri from New York.  His brother Nat Benton, a prosecutor from Greene County, introduced him to Missouri State Senator Ed Barbour.  The artist had recently finished the Indiana mural which depicted a history of the state, and Barbour was interested in a mural depicting Missouri history.  At this time, little information exists aside from text by Bob Priddy concerning the early process and legislation behind the murals.  However, we do know that, as Priddy describes, Senator Barbour arranged a party in Jefferson City to propose a Benton mural to state legislators.  Barbour was determined to find a way to generate funding for the murals, and he quickly introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution 6, which was passed on March 5, 1935 by Representative Roy Hamlin of Hannibal.  Although few records exist documenting the early stipulations and details of this legislation, the resolution recognized Benton as “one of the greatest living painters.”  Resolution 6 also moved to honor Benton by commissioning him to paint a mural. The Resolution moved that three senators and three representatives should consult with the Board of the Permanent Seat of Government to determine the subject and location for the mural.  They had originally planned on using the Senate Lounge, but the room was already decorated with Lorenz Kleiser’s tapestries.  The committee considered the House Lounge because it was the largest room available.  Interestingly, Egerton Swarwout, the original architect of the Capitol, felt that the lounge was much too “bald and forbidding” to house a mural.  On May 27th the 31st Amendment proposed by Senator James Rollins established Benton’s salary for the works, which included all of the painting expenses.  On May 28, 1935, the House Bill 536 Section 87 B was passed, giving Benton $16,000 to decorate the House Lounge in the State Capitol.  This was a considerable sum during the Depression:  for this work Benton received more than the Missouri governor’s annual salary.  The Board of the Permanent Seat, a committee stipulated by Barbour’s resolution, appointed six individuals, including Senator Barbour, to decide the details of the contract.  Unfortunately, current records do not tell us the other members of the committee or the process they used to determine their decisions concerning the contract.  This committee agreed that the subject of the scenes was to be A Social History of the State of Missouri, and the House Lounge walls were to be the location for the murals.  The completion was scheduled for 1937, and Benton was given complete freedom in interpreting and executing the theme for the paintings.