portrait of thomas hart benton

Artist Profile: Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas was born into a political family. In a family of four children, he was the first born, two sisters, and a brother. His family was well off as his father was Colonel Maecenas Benton, a lawyer, and a US congressman four times. He was born in Missouri in 1889. The most of Thomas’s young life was spent traveling between Missouri and Washington DC because of his father’s political affiliations.

Colonel Maecenas had hope that his first born son would take after him and join politics. He, therefore sent Thomas to Western Military Academy in 1905 to receive military training. Thomas, however, took a different path. Having gotten his upbringing from two cultures that were both parts of him, he went against his father’s wishes and put all his focus into his art.

His mother was in support of this decision, and he was even able to get a job as a cartoonist for Joplin American newspaper in Missouri as a teenager. With his mother backing him, he was able to join art school in Chicago, The School of the Art Institute in 1907.

thomas benton mural with city activieis and dance hall

In 1909, he went to Paris to continue art education. He went to the Academie Julian during which his mother gave him financial and emotional support. He was under his mother’s care until his early 30s when he began a family of his own.

Thomas met artists like Rivera and Stanton while in Paris. He did not conform to Diego’s ideas like many others, but he instead got his influence from Stanton who was an advocate for synchromism. Thomas began his synchromist since that encounter.

His adventures and studies in Europe came to an end in 1912 when he moved to New York where he began painting. He was in the US Navy at the Norfolk station in World War I. His time in the war made an impact on his painting style. He made illustrations of the work and life in a ships yard which became part of the influencing factors of his later forms.

Thomas drew paintings of the camouflage ships that docked at the Norfolk harbor. His works were needed so that the US ship painters would make the drawings correctly, to help the US identify their camouflage ships and to have an advantage of recognizing other ships. He took pride in his work in the Navy that he said it was his most important work as an artist.

Married life

He got married in 1922 to an Italian immigrant Rita Piacenza. She was his student at his art classes for a neighborhood organization in New York. The couple was blessed with two children a boy and a girl in 1926 and 1939 respectively. Thomas was married to his wife for over 53 years. He was separated from his family by his death in 1975. After his death, his wife died eleven weeks later.

Thomas Benton Career

His career began with him denouncing modernism and focusing on his works that are now known as Regionalism. He only took part in leftist politics and his actions kept on growing. His America, Today murals at the New School for Social Research in 1930, was the epitome of his regionalist work. AXA Equitable bought the paintings in 1984, restored them and put them up in the AXA Equitable Tower lobby. The murals got sent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012 as donations.

In 1932, Thomas won a commission from the state to paint the murals of Indiana life for the Century of Progress Exhibition in 1933. These paintings were followed by controversies because, in the murals, there are depictions of the lives of the people and the events that take place. The people did not take too kindly to the publicizing of those events.

controversial thomas benton mural featuring history of state with KKK klu klux klan represented in background

The Ku Klux Klan was something he featured in the murals and critics were on his throat for it. Exposing the members of the KKK was a vice to the people. Most of the men in those times were members of the Klan, and in 1924, the governor elected was a member of KKK. Other members took other political offices in the same year. The murals are however still on display at the Indiana University.

The 1932 Arts of Life in America murals is also part of his works for the Whitney Museum of America Art. The work was a large five panels, and in 1953, the panels were bought by the New Britain Museum of American Art and are on display at the museum.

His color covers featured in the Times Magazine in 1934. The US Scene article was a story about him and two other artists who were the heroes of American art during the time. His disregard for politics did not sit well with artists; he went back to Missouri where he began work on the mural for the Missouri state capitol. The mural, A Social History of Missouri, was among his best works of his career.

thomas benton huge mural in a room

After moving around and his adventures, he finally put up camp in Kansas, and he began teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute. In his works, Benton always showed empathy for the working class and the peasants. He would demonstrate the beauty of living in a small town, desperation and the sadness of the oppressed in his paintings.

persephone mural by thomas benton

He made the Persephone in 1930. The painting arose controversy, and was taken to a night club. It is considered one of the best works of American Pornography. His autobiography, An Artist in America, came out in 1937. The autobiography gave an impression on Sinclair Lewis who praised Thomas for his expertise in painting and also writing.

Later works

Benton was among the nine artists who took part in documenting scenes in the production of The Long Voyage home in 1940. In 1942, his musical album, Saturday Night at Tom Benton’s came out. He was a great harmonica musician.

jefferson city thomas benton huge mural

He made a mural series, The Year of Peril, during the Second World War that showed the threats of fascism and Nazism. He did the Lincoln mural for the Lincoln University in 1953, Trading at Westport Landing for the river club in 1956, Father Hennepin at Niagara Falls for the Power Authority of the state of New York in 1972 and the Independence and the Opening of the West for the Harry Truman library. The work at the library led to his friendship with the president.

He was working on The Sources of Country Music for the Country music hall of fame in Nashville when he died. His residence in Missouri was made a historic site and remains unchanged since. His life and works have been the features of a documentary in 1988.