Drawn from the Heartland

Postcard of self-portrait of Thomas Hart Benton, painted by the artist in 1970
Postcard of self-portrait of Thomas Hart Benton, painted by the artist in 1970
Kansas City Art Institute
Kansas City Art Institute

Thomas Hart Benton, future painter and a leader of the regionalist movement in American art during the 1930s, was born in Neosho, Missouri on April 15, 1889. After showing a strong interest in art as a youth, he aggressively pursued an artistic career and eventually became one of America's most famous artists of the 20th century.

As a member of a politically prominent Missouri family, Benton faced the high expectations of his father, who wanted him to be a lawyer or politician. His great-uncle and namesake was the five-term U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858), who aggressively promoted westward expansion in the first half of the 19th century. Other extended family members included Samuel Benton (Confederate general during the Civil War), Thomas H. Benton, Jr. (Union brigadier general during the Civil War), James McDowell (U.S. senator and governor of Virginia), John C. Fremont (Union general and presidential candidate), and Henry Clay (senator, cabinet secretary, and three-time presidential candidate).

Unlike many members of his family, Thomas Hart Benton showed little interest in politics, the military, or law. As a youth, he instead enjoyed drawing, a hobby that his mother, Elizabeth Wise Benton, encouraged, but his father, Maecenas Eason Benton, resisted. In 1896 Maecenas won election to the U.S. Congress and moved the family to Washington, D.C. One of Thomas's early artistic inspirations was the Library of Congress, with its neoclassical interior finished with grand murals. While in Washington, Benton also developed a talent for drawing caricatures, which were styled after the work of Clifford Berryman, the cartoonist of The Washington Post.

The family moved back to Neosho in 1904 when Maecenas lost a reelection bid, and Thomas struggled to fit in. He was arrested twice for fighting, and struggled to jumpstart his own career as a young adult. He did eventually land a job as staff artist for the local Joplin American newspaper, but then entered a military school in Illinois at the insistence of his father. In spring, 1907, he left the school to enter the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1908, his father agreed to fund his trip to Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian. While there, Benton developed a modernist style with brilliant colors.

By 1912, Benton was on his own financially. He moved to New York with $100 in cash and struggled to make ends meet as a portrait artist. In the early months, he even resorted to stealing food to get by. Fortunately, he later made friends who provided aid and found him jobs. The U.S. entry into World War I forced another change, as Benton joined the navy. It was a critical time of development for him, as he painted or drew the activities and structures at the Norfolk navy base in representational styles rather than abstraction. He also began using clay models to plan the spacing in his artwork.

In the 1920s, Benton made paintings depicting American life and in the process developed the style that would make him famous. In 1924, after visiting his dying father in Springfield, Missouri, he decided to concentrate on scenes reminiscent of his childhood and of the working lives of Americans in mills, mines, rivers, and fields. By 1930, he had painted four large murals that brought him his first taste of national fame. Each mural depicted life in an American region or industry in vibrant colors and stark designs. Through the 1930s and 1940s, the American art scene was dominated by this "regionalist" design and subject matter that Benton, along with fellow artists Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, pioneered.

In September, 1935, Benton moved to Kansas City, where he taught painting courses at the Kansas City Art Institute. For the rest of his career, Benton continued to travel around the United States for exhibitions, magazine interviews, and mural projects. His most famous murals in Missouri during this period were A Social History of Missouri (at the state capitol in Jefferson City) and Independence and the Opening of the West (at the Truman Library).

As with any great artist, Benton's work and ideas produced controversy. He considered his artwork to be social commentary, and he did not shy away from depicting the tragedy of the darker parts of American life, including the historical and contemporary mistreatment of Native Americans and African Americans, and the corruption of Kansas City during the years of “Boss” Tom Pendergast. He feuded with other artists on occasion, and he was outspoken in his opposition to conservatives, communists, and homosexuals alike. The latter prejudice caught up with Benton in 1941, when he was fired from the Art Institute after publicly accusing several employees of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art of being homosexual. At the time, a majority of Americans shared his negative views toward homosexuality, so his larger artistic career continued after the episode.

Benton thrived even without the teaching position and even as the regionalist movement declined in favor of modernism and abstraction in the late-1940s. He produced propaganda paintings for the government during World War II and concentrated his private work on less controversial landscapes and historical or classical subjects. In the 1960s, he became an American pop culture icon as one of America's most famous artists. He appeared on television and radio, and in Life, American Heritage, and Sports Illustrated magazines. On January 19, 1975, he suffered a heart attack and died while working on a mural in his Kansas City studio.

 

Visit the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site.

 

Read full biographical sketches of Thomas Hart Benton and other area artists, prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library:

 

View images relating to Thomas Hart Benton that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

Check out the following books and articles about Thomas Hart Benton, held by the Kansas City Public Library:

 

Continue researching Thomas Hart Benton using archival materials from the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

References:

Sherry Lamb Schirmer and Richard D. McKinzie, At the River’s Bend: An Illustrated History of Kansas City (Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, 1982), 146.

Dick Fowler, Leaders in Our Town (Kansas City, MO: Burd & Fletcher, 1952), 29-32.

David Conrads, "Biography of Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Artist," the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library, 2003.

Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 61-64.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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Comments:

Lovely article. keep up the

Lovely article. keep up the excellent work. I enjoy depth...

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