Twain and Benton: A Match Made in Missouri

A leader of the regionalist movement in 20th century American art, Thomas Hart Benton showed the same fascination for ordinary people and bucolic settings that his fellow Missourian Mark Twain popularized in his writings the century before. Benton was the natural choice to illustrate three of Twain's books reprinted in the 1930s and '40s.

It was nearly 30 years after Twain’s death in 1910 that the Limited Editions Club of New York (which had already paired Matisse with James Joyce’s Ulysses and Picasso with Lysistrata) asked Benton to illustrate reissued versions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi.

Joan Stack, art curator of the State Historical Society of Missouri, is presenting a lecture on Benton’s Limited Editions Club illustrations at the Central Library on Sunday, September 19 at 2 p.m. (Details here.) She says that Benton “embraced Twain as a kindred spirit, someone who was as inspired by the land and people of Missouri just as much as he was.”

Stack points out that Twain’s writing had already inspired Benton on at least one occasion. Benton included a scene from Huckleberry Finn in his famous 1935 mural, A Social History of Missouri, for the House of Representatives Lounge in the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. (Benton also made a lithograph of the scene, which depicts Huck and the escaped slave Jim on a raft.)

In fact, Stack says that Benton originally considered devoting the entire mural to Huckleberry Finn, but he instead decided to go with a broader theme – one not far from Twain’s sensibilities.

“In A Social History of Missouri, he was describing the lives of everyday people and how they made Missouri what it was. He dealt with the working person, and I think he saw that in Twain,” Stack says.

“Benton also had a sense of humor, so Twain appealed on that level as well,” she adds.

Tom Sawyer
"Thomas Hart Benton, "...the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by..." from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (The Limited Editions Club, 1939)

Benton’s desire to illustrate entire works by Twain came to fruition several years later in the Limited Editions books of 1939-44, and the legacies of both artists are better for it.

Using tempera, watercolor, and ink, Benton rendered the questing Huckleberry, his friend-cum-father-figure Jim, the mischievous Tom Sawyer, the steamboats of the Mississippi, and other people and places from Twain’s stories in a lively but unpretentious style that perfectly matches the author’s prose.

“Especially with Tom Sawyer, he works in a very spontaneous style that looks quickly drawn,” says Stack.

bat cave
Thomas Hart Benton, Chapter XXXI Heading, "Lost and Found Again" from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (The Limited Editions Club, 1939)

Stack notes, however, that the effortless quality of the drawings can be misleading. She cites the story of how a detailed pencil sketch of an oak tree by Benton that was given to the State Historical Society was later discovered to have been a study for one of the drawings in Tom Sawyer.

“Each illustration has a great deal more in it than you first think. They give the illusion of being simple and carefree, when in fact a lot of time has gone into it,” she says.

The same could be said of the author's writing. Much in the way that Twain bucked the formal literary conventions of his day, Benton produced images that contrasted the 19th-century texts’ original illustrations.

“He was trying to capture visually the same feeling you get from the prose of Mark Twain – it’s easy, written in the vernacular, and the feeling you get when you’re reading is that Twain is just popping it off,” Stack says. Benton’s corresponding images are “funny, quick, and he captures expression and gesture very well.”

Huck Finn
Thomas Hart Benton, Chapter I Heading, "I Discover Moses and the Bulrushers" from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (The Limited Editions Club, 1942)

For Benton, this project was about more than just illuminating a treasured text – it was of historical significance. This feeling led him to donate an entire set of illustrations to the State Historical Society.

“This project, perhaps more than any other, tied him to the state of Missouri and was a chance for him to meditate on that, on the state and its meaning, to communicate his experiences of the land and the river on his life and art,” Stack says.

Learn more about Benton’s illustrations for Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi when Stack speaks and displays some of the original artworks on Sunday, September 19, at the Central Library at 2 p.m. (Info.)

The free presentation is part of the Missouri Valley Speakers Series, a program of the Missouri Valley Special Collections. Please RSVP if you wish to attend.

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Thomas Hart Benton, "If the fire would give him time to reach a sand-bar... from Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (The Limited Editions Club, 1944)

All illustrations in this entry reproduced by permission of the State Historical Society of Missouri and MBI Inc. All rights reserved.

-- Jason Harper