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Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton
(April 15, 1889 – January 19, 1975)

Excerpted from Wikipedia
Thomas Hart Benton was an American painter and muralist. Along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, he was at the forefront of the Regionalist art movement. His fluid, sculpted figures in his paintings showed everyday people in scenes of life in the United States. His work is strongly associated with the Midwestern United States, where he was born and called home for most of his life. He also studied in Paris, lived in New York City for more than 20 years and painted scores of works there, summered for 50 years on Martha's Vineyard off the New England coast, and also painted scenes of the American South and West.

Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri, into an influential family of politicians.His mother was Elizabeth Wise Benton and his father, Colonel Maecenas Benton, was a lawyer and four times elected as U.S. congressman. Known as the "little giant of the Ozarks", Maecenas named his son after his own great-uncle,Thomas Hart Benton, one of the first two United States Senators elected from Missouri.

With his mother's encouragement, in 1907 Benton enrolled at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago. Two years later, he moved to Paris in 1909 to continue his art education at the Académie Julian. After studying in Europe, Benton moved to New York City in 1912 and resumed painting. During World War I, he served in the U.S. Navy and was stationed at Norfolk, Virginia. His war-related work had an enduring effect on his style. He was directed to make drawings and illustrations of shipyard work and life, and this requirement for realistic documentation strongly affected his later style. Later in the war, classified as a "camoufleur," Benton drew the camouflaged ships that entered Norfolk harbor. His work was required for several reasons: to ensure that U.S. ship painters were correctly applying the camouflage schemes, to aid in identifying U.S. ships that might later be lost, and to have records of the ship camouflage of other Allied navies. Benton later said that his work for the Navy "was the most important thing, so far, I had ever done for myself as an artist.

On his return to New York in the early 1920s, Benton declared himself an "enemy of modernism"; he began the naturalistic and representational work today known as Regionalism. Benton was active in leftist politics. He expanded the scale of his Regionalist works, culminating in his America Today murals at the New School for Social Research in 1930-31.

Benton broke through to the mainstream in 1932. A relative unknown, he won a commission to paint the murals of Indiana life planned by the state in the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. The Indiana Murals stirred controversy; Benton painted everyday people, and included a portrayal of events in the state's history which some people did not want publicized. Critics attacked his work for showing Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members in full regalia. These mural panels are now displayed at Indiana University in Bloomington, with the majority hung in the "Hall of Murals" at the Auditorium. Four additional panels are displayed in the former University Theatre (now the Indiana Cinema) connected to the Auditorium. Two panels, including the one with images of the KKK, are located in a lecture classroom at Woodburn Hall.

In 1932, Benton also painted The Arts of Life in America, a set of large murals for an early site of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Major panels include Arts of the City, Arts of the West, Arts of the South and Indian Arts. In 1953 five of the panels were purchased by the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut, and have since been displayed there.

In 1935, after he had "alienated both the left-leaning community of artists with his disregard for politics and the larger New York-Paris art world with what was considered his folksy style",[4] Benton left the artistic debates of New York for his native Missouri.

During World War II, Benton created a series titled The Year of Peril, which portrayed the threat to American ideals by fascism and Nazism. The prints were widely distributed. Following the war, Regionalism fell from favor, eclipsed by the rise of Abstract Expressionism. Benton remained active for another 30 years, but his work included less contemporary social commentary and portrayed pre-industrial farmlands.

He continued to paint murals, including Lincoln (1953), for Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri; Trading At Westport Landing (1956), for The River Club in Kansas City; Father Hennepin at Niagara Falls (1961) for the Power Authority of the State of New York; Joplin at the Turn of the Century (1972) in Joplin; and Independence and the Opening of the West, for the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence.

Benton was a daily presence at the Truman Library for about six months. He arrived early every morning. He was a small man, not much over five feet tall, and though he was 70 years old, he could still climb up on the scaffolding every day. He liked a pipe and cigars and probably always smelled of them. He looked rumpled, and his plaid shirts sometimes looked slept in. He carried with him to the library every day a container of his wife’s homemade soup, which he warmed up and ate at noontime in the staff lunch room. He was friendly with library staff as he took his soup and would chat about anything that came up. Everyone liked him.

His commission for the Truman Library mural led to his developing a friendship with the former U.S. President that lasted for the rest of their lives.  read more

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