Subject Matter and Iconography of the Thomas Hart Benton Murals
In December 1936, Thomas Hart Benton completed his mural of A Social History of the State of Missouri. Although the commission for the murals stipulated social history as the topic, the artist had free rein to explore that as he wished free from the constraints of an oversight committee or other controls. Although his work initially faced harsh criticism, Benton believed his paintings represented the character of the Midwest, capturing the vitality and essence of Missouri through everyday scenes. Benton identified with historian Fredrick Jackson Turner, who believed in manifest destiny and focused on the importance of the individual in the shaping of history. Benton saw the everyday working class people’s behavior as having the greatest impact on history. In his mural, Benton chose to focus on the people of Missouri, including 235 individual portraits into the mural. Benton thought that Missouri's uniqueness came from its people, and their strengths lay in their industries, agriculture, manpower. Benton focused on these aspects, juxtaposing hardships and simple joys within the mural. Benton set out to capture Missouri, and he did so by portraying the typical Missourian.
In order to get a full view of the state, Benton injected Missouri’s “mythology” into his murals. Infamous characters such as Tom Pendergast are not excluded, because according to the artist, the account would not be realistic without taking their influence into account. Benton’s view of Missouri was mainly influenced by his own childhood experiences, and the artist planned on traveling four days a week before beginning his murals in order to get a truthful perspective of the state. Benton took part in hunting and fishing parties, political barbecues, and spoke with everyone from educated art critics to Ozark hillbillies in order to understand the Missourian spirit. Benton believed that the Midwest would be a driving force in the future, and through his murals, he wanted to capture this history in the making.
Overall, the mural functions as a narrative beginning on the north wall and finishing on the south. Of the thirteen panels, six deal with Missouri’s history, two are social scenes, and three panels deal with legends associated with the state. The narrative begins on left corner of the north wall as pioneers arrive in the state by keel boats and prairie schooners. A plow and oxen till the field and the settlers raise a traditional log cabin, symbolizing the territory’s settlement. The particular French style of the cabin references the first settlers in the region. A turkey shoot, where settlers took turns shooting at the animal’s head, was a popular sport in rural Missouri. The man and the mule represent the trail life through the wild frontier of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The earliest trade is shown by a French frontiersman trading whiskey and beads for furs with an Osage Indian. The Missouri River, the “main artery of the state,” winds through the mural’s background.
On the right half of the north wall, two men cutting down lumber and a blacksmith forging wagon wheels represent Missouri’s first construction. In the rural region of the Ozarks, a riverside baptism takes place next to an old water mill from Newton County. A slave auction, a prominent part of Missouri history, shows a slave trader pointing out the strong muscles of a slave to possible buyers. In the background, the St. Louis Courthouse, the Basilica of St. Louis, and the first Missouri Capitol building in St. Charles show some of Missouri’s own landmarks. The Capitol in St. Charles is represented as the original log cabin before power was transferred to Jefferson City. The first social commentary is located in the left inset. This section shows slavery mistreatment in the lead mines in St. François County located in the southeast corner of Missouri. Benton created this scene after a story he heard of a slave owner in Missouri named Renault who brought in over five hundred slaves from Santo Domingo to work his mines. The other inset is a scene from the mid 1800s when the Mormons were driven out from the western portion of the state. The scene depicts a burning house as well as the tarring and feathering of a naked Mormon. Above the door, Mark Twain’s character Huckleberry Finn and his friend Jim float down the Mississippi River fishing for catfish. A large paddleboat bearing the name “Sam Clemens” chugs along in the background, a tribute to the Missourian author.
The east wall continues with a frontiersman and his two dogs hunting through the wild and unsettled territory. A political gathering takes place in a small town greatly resembling Benton’s hometown of Neosho. Benton’s father Maecenus E. Benton makes a speech in front of a poster of Champ Clark, and Senator Ed Barbour, who helped pass the legislation for Benton’s commission, sits in the audience. Although this scene is anachronistically incorrect, Benton was especially interested in this scene. Not only does he depict his father and other family members in the scene, but his beloved hometown is also showcased. Benton gives particular recognition to Barbour by placing him in this monumental event in the history of Neosho and his father’s political career. The Senator is the man stopping two young boys, Benton’s nephews, from fighting. Three women prepare a potluck as another woman changes her baby’s diaper in public. The Pike County Court House in Bowling Green hosts a horse trade and a steamboat floats in the background. A looming black cloud of smoke represents the destruction of the Civil War. The figure of a lynched slave is illuminated by the flames, showing the guerilla warfare at the time. The smoke from a locomotive mixes with the large billowing cloud of the Civil War.
The right of the north wall shows a typical Ozark farm complete with a sorghum mill powered by a Missouri mule, the mascot of the state. The simple farmers feed their chickens, and in the fields, workers with scythes take a break from the burning sun. Another mule helps a farmer plow his field. Two lumbermen use a crosscut saw to split a thick log, representing the important role of the lumber industry in Missouri. To the left, a man pitches hay and another farmer milks a cow, representing the dairy industry. The scene shows other important livestock such as the Black Poland’s hog raising and turkey farming. Inside a one room farmhouse, an elderly woman rolls out dough for biscuits as a man reads a newspaper on his rocking chair. A young man washes his hair in a basin and a little boy, Benton’s son T.P., eats a sandwich. Their home is simple without running water and a handmade quilt covering the bed. At least four generations have lived in this homely yet orderly house. In contrast with the simplicity of this farming family, new industrialization introduces the new steam-powered silo and threshing operation. However, this new technology brings development as well as pollution. In the courtroom, Nat Benton, the artist’s brother and Prosecuting Attorney for Greene County, presents his case in front of a sleeping judge. A captivated onlooker sits next to the courtroom’s spittoon, and the old brick Neosho Courthouse can be seen behind the courtroom. The top panel is a scene of Missouri’s famed bandits. The James Boys are in the middle of two robberies; the Chicago and Alton Railroad as well as a small town bank. The two insets flanking the doors show two modes of transportation. The Pony Express, a short-lived mailing system for the West Coast, began its relays from St. Joseph. In 1861 these mail carriers were forced out of business by the telegraph. The steamboat, an industrial and cultural facet of Missouri, chugs along in the background as a well-dressed man and woman embrace on the dock. In the background a white-pillared mansion notes the wealth across the river’s shores.
The South wall features the activity and progress of Missouri’s cities. In St. Louis, shoe manufacturing and brewing represent the progress and industry in the city. In the shoe manufacturing scene, the production evolves from man power to a mechanized assembly line. The men making the beer kegs sample some of the product. A secretary types in the foreground, and the Union Railroad Station tower can be seen in the background. The image of a butcher preparing beef for the market contrasts sharply with the pristine façade of the Nelson Gallery of Art. In front of the Gallery a businessmen dinner takes place. Prominent citizens, including the infamous Tom Pendergast, are seated as scantily clad cabaret dancers perform in the background. The chemistry setup shows the advancement of chemical research in Kansas City. The scene also represents tragedy and hardships. The Liberty Memorial Tower, a monument to the soldiers of WWI and three men huddled in front of a burning metal bin remind viewers of the effects of the war and Depression on the state. The two insets display two contrasting city scenes. In the speakeasy, men and women dance as they listen to a live performance. The revelry of this scene contrasts with the misery of the Depression. The Depression scene shows the sad conditions of the 1930s where people gathered fuel from scraps and garbage along the railroads in order to survive. The final legend is an account of Frankie and Johnny, a lover’s quarrel in St. Louis during the 1800s. The story is historically based in fact of a St. Louis event, but the ballad commemorating the event was a folk song and therefore never written down. Today, over 300 variations of the song exist. On the western wall, cornstalks, power lines, and railroads represent agriculture, industry, and business. The balance of these elements helped Missouri to develop into a prosperous state.
Thomas Hart Benton used average Missourians to give a sense of authenticity to the murals. Throughout his travels of Missouri, Benton would draw portraits of interesting individuals to add to his painting. To give the French hunter a sense of authenticity, the artist asked insurance agent Charles La Pierre to act as his model. Rotha “Popeye” Williams, a janitor in the capitol was the model for Huck’s companion Jim. In the courtroom scene, Jackson Lee Nesbit, a student at the Kansas City Institute of Art, posed for all of the men’s bodies. His entire figure, down to his unkempt hair, represents the man next to the spittoon. The naked baby at the political gathering is Harold Brown Jr., son of a State Adjutant General, and Mary Tunnel, a State Highway Department worker, is the baby’s mother. R. Bryson Jones, an insurance executive, reads a speech in the Kansas City scene. Benton also asked more notable individuals to sit for him. He sketched Tom Pendergast in his office on December 6, 1936. W. T. Kemper, a banker, and J. C. Nichols, a real estate developer and a trustee of the Nelson Art Gallery, are two of the seated community business leaders in the Kansas City scene. For an authentic Jesse James, Benton used writer Dan James, a descendant of the James Brothers. The incorporation of these Missourians gives the mural a stronger sense of individuality and was something that Benton continually sought for.
Thomas Hart Benton had a unique approach in portraying A Social History of the State of Missouri. Although he was told to depict the history of Missouri, Benton’s choices were not scenes commonly associated with the contemporary aspect of Missouri. Certain scenes, such as those of slavery, lynching, and Mormon abuse were particular social comments by Benton. Benton was particularly interested in racial issues and incorporated his interests into the murals. Benton did not hide questionable scenes such as those of Pendergast, the St. Louis Breweries, or the speakeasies, but made sure that they were at the forefront of the scenes. Besides portraying political and social issues, Benton was also influenced by his own life and experiences. He depicted his hometown various family members into the forefront of A Social History of the State of Missouri. Although Benton’s motive behind choosing these topics cannot be definitively determined, the artist brought controversial and overlooked issues to the public eye. Another important aspect of the mural was the emphasis on regular Missourians in their everyday activities. The murals are not an expected rendition of the state, but Benton embraces the universal character of Missouri. Work, laughter, and tragedy combine to create his truthful account of the state. Benton set out to capture the common Missourian, and by choosing to portray these interesting scenes, Benton captured a unique rendition of the great state.