Perspective: Thomas Hart Benton [1889 –1975]

There was a time not so long ago when we — the American public with an interest in art — were not supposed to like Thomas Hart Benton. From the late 1950s until recently, the art world — especially that which radiates out from New York — had little room for him. His painting style was perceived as retrograde, stubbornly representational in the forward-looking era of Abstract Expressionism, non-objective and conceptual art. At a point in his long career when his popularity might otherwise have continued for many more years, most art critics and art historians dismissed him. To make matters worse, Benton was not inclined to offer excuses for his art or himself. In public, the Missouri native concealed the fact that he was exceptionally well read and held a deep and sophisticated knowledge of art history. He cultivated a gruff, hard-drinking, politically incorrect persona that alienated many.

How things change with time.

Today a new generation of art students, scholars and curators is rediscovering and recasting Benton in a fresh light, unimpeded by either his personality or the distorting filter of the current art vogue. The 125th anniversary of Benton’s birth saw the opening in 2014 of two important museum exhibitions highlighting aspects of his work, with another opening this June. In addition, recent writings by scholars including Henry Adams, Leo Mazow, Austen Barron Bailly and Erika Doss, and a new biography by Justin Wolff, reverse many long-held perceptions as they re-examine Benton’s contributions to 20th-century American art. The painter once derided as “Okie Baroque” can now be seen as a complex, remarkable, even visionary artist who, in some ways, was far ahead of his time.

Benton was born in 1889 into a family of ambitious Missouri politicians. He was named after his great-uncle, Thomas Hart Benton, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1821 to 1851 and was a champion of Western expansion. The artist’s father, Colonel Maecenas Benton (“The Little Giant of the Ozarks”), was elected to Congress four times. As a boy, Thomas found himself shuttled between Missouri and Washington, D.C., where he was impressed by the public art there, including traditional historical murals. The colonel envisioned his son as the family’s next lawyer and politician. He sent the boy off to Western Military Academy, a private military preparatory school, in 1905. But young Benton had other ideas.

At 18 he enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago, supported emotionally, and financially until his early 30s, by his artistically inclined mother. In 1909 he moved to Paris to continue studying art. There he adopted a bohemian lifestyle, met such painters as Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and tried his hand at a wide range of styles. Or as he put it many years later in his 1937 autobiography, “I wallowed in every cockeyed ism that came along.” With typical pugnacity he added, “and it took me ten years to get all that Modernist dirt out of my system.”

Benton spent part of those 10 years, during World War I, illustrating shipyard scenes in a realistic documentary style for the U.S. Navy. For Benton, the experience was a crucial step toward discovering his signature narrative style.

After the war, Benton lived in New York, where his art began to reveal a strong populist sentiment — also expressed over the years in anti-elitist pronouncements and his folksy, rough-hewn manner. In 1922 he married Italian immigrant and art student Rita Piacenza, and the two remained married until Benton’s death in 1975. Teaching at the Art Students League of New York from 1926 to 1935, Benton was instructor and mentor to a young Jackson Pollock, who served as Benton’s studio assistant for a time and modeled for figures in his mural work. But Benton’s refusal to bend to the avant-garde winds of change created a deep rift between the two painters, as it did between Benton and the vanguard of the East Coast art world. In 1935 he returned to Missouri, where he taught at the Kansas City Art Institute until 1941.

While still in New York, however, Benton received his first major mural commission, from the New School for Social Research. Painted in 1930 and 1931, America Today became one of his best-known works. The 10-panel mural is a “veritable compendium of American art and culture of the 1920s and into the ’30s,” notes Randall Griffey, associate curator in the department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. America Today was inspired by the Jazz Age in New York and Benton’s prodigious travels around the country, particularly in the South and Midwest. It takes viewers on an “adventure, a voyage across big portions of the United States, culminating in modern New York at the end of the 1920s,” Griffey says.

In 1984, America Today was purchased by AXA Equitable Life Insurance for its New York headquarters, and in 2012 AXA donated it to the Met. The museum unveiled the mural last September in a room that, for the first time since 1982, recreates the artwork’s original spatial arrangement and visual impact. The exhibition, Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered, continues through April 19, 2015.

Painted in a mixture of egg tempera and oils, the crowded, vibrant scenes were clearly in step with the times as they celebrated the country’s enormous changes after World War I. Yet alongside dazzling large-scale imagery of new modes of transportation, industrial progress and urban delights are glimpses of barren, clear-cut landscapes, towering oil derricks and plumes of black smoke — suggestions of the human and environmental price to be paid. “Benton was very presciently attuned to our environmental impact on the land from the get-go,” observes Austen Barron Bailly, the George Putnam curator of American art at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts.

Bailly, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the artist, is chief curator for American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, a traveling exhibition on view in its inaugural venue June 6 through September 7, 2015, at PEM. Its next stop will be the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, opening October 10. The show illuminates Benton’s cinematic style, with its engaging, sculptural figures, dramatic sense of movement and rhythm, and compression of narrative into a single scene as if on a stage. It is a style influenced by the artist’s personal involvement with the film industry. Benton painted backdrops for silent films in New Jersey, and in 1937 was commissioned by Life magazine to document the changing industry. Through the 1950s he produced prints and paintings for movies, including “The Grapes of Wrath” directed by John Ford, “The Long Voyage Home” starring John Wayne, and Burt Lancaster’s “The Kentuckian.” The artworks were displayed at movie premiers and made into promotional posters.

Benton’s 1935 relocation to the Midwest provided a convenient jumping-off place for his travels, which allowed him to observe and visually record both positive and shameful aspects of American history and society, including the strength and pride of workers and farmers, the mistreatment of African-Americans, and the Ku Klux Klan. Sketchbook in hand, he was especially drawn to folk traditions, music and stories of folk heroes. His later work often celebrated epic themes of the West. “He immersed himself in the Western landscape at a moment when the United States was trying to protect wild lands. His beliefs were conservationist, even though he wasn’t an activist,” Bailly says.

The populist, democratic impulse reflected in Benton’s imagery also fueled his desire for as many people as possible to own his art. He succeeded in this goal, in large part through black-and-white lithographs printed by master lithographer George C. Miller, of New York, and widely distributed by the Associated American Artists. These were sold by mail and in department stores and, as late as the mid1970s, a signed Benton print could be purchased for as little as $5. In Kansas City, where the artist lived for much of his life and died in his studio at age 85, the Nelson-Atkins Museum currently is presenting Benton in Black and White: Lithographs by Thomas Hart Benton. The exhibition runs through February 15.

Benton became known as a Regionalist, capturing the landscape, history and culture of various parts of the country with his keen eye and masterful painting skills. Yet scholars are less disposed to pigeonhole his art these days, explains Stephanie Fox Knappe, Samuel Sosland curator of American art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, the largest holder of Benton’s work. “He talked about being an American painter. That was important to him,” Knappe says. Indeed, at the height of his popularity the artist was familiar to millions of Americans, thanks in part to a December 1934 Time magazine article for which his painted self-portrait was on the cover.

Long after Benton’s reputation tumbled, however, he continued to work, producing easel paintings, murals, lithographs, posters and book illustrations. Today we are the beneficiaries of a renewed discourse that returns the painter from exile in the margins of American art. “He was really trying to make pictures about American experiences and questions of American identity in a deeply engaged way, with a unique style and an incredibly intense method,” Bailly says. “It creates a level of quality in the work that cannot be ignored.” Adds Knappe: “He’s an artist who continues to reward study and investigation. The more you study him, the more complicated he becomes.” 

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