I first discovered the artwork of Thomas Hart Benton from an article in Smithsonian magazine while I was in college in the 1980s. I really didn’t know too much about the fine arts back then, and I knew even less about the great American artists from that time between the two great World Wars. I loved learning about new artists and great paintings, and Benton was a real revelation to me. He was one of the biggest influences on me as I was learning to find my own style and voice as an artist. I never get tired of looking at Benton’s paintings, and his attempts to capture the energy and rawness of the everyday American life left a deep impression on my own outlook on art.
Thomas Hart Benton was named after his great uncle, the Senator Thomas Hart Benton. Benton grew up with an ambitiuos politician father and a socially striving mother and he had to rebel against both to pursue an artistic career. He moved to Paris in the early 1900s and tried out all the modern art styles of the day. He befriended Stanton McDonald Wright and painted several Synchromist pieces. When he moved to New York City in the 1910s, he rubbed shoulders with Alfred Stieglitz and the Modernist American artists. Benton ‘s background in Missouri populist politics and his reading of authors like Bernard Shaw made him sympathetic to Anarchist and Socialist ideas, and he was briefly a Marxist and allowed Communist Party meetings in his home.
The death of Benton’s father marked a great change in his life. The relationship between the father and son had been full of friction, due in part to Benton’s pursuit of art. After Benton’s father died, Tom began focusing on American subject matter, and he abandoned abstract painting for a more raw energetic realism. He would say in his biography, An Artist In American:
“I cannot honestly say what happened to me while I watched my father die and listened to the voices of his friends, but I know that when, after his death, I went back East, I was moved by a great desire to know more of the America which I had glimpsed in the suggestive words of his old cronies, who seeing him at the end of his tether, had tried to jerk him back with reminiscent talk and suggestive anecdote. I was moved by a desire to pick up again the threads of my childhood. To my itch for going places there was injected a thread of purpose which, however slight as a far-reaching philosophy, ws to make the next ten years of my life a rich texture of varied experience.”
During the late 1920s to the end of the 1930s, I think Benton made his best paintings. He painted sharecroppers and coal miners, shipyard workers and cowboys, stockbrokers and bootleggers, soapbox revivalists and burlesque dancers. In paintings like Boomtown (http://magart.rochester.edu/VieO211$335*168110), Lord Heal the Child (http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/depression/gallery/benton1934.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/depression/artgallery.htm&h=454&w=600&sz=65&hl=en&start=1&um=1&tbnid=GB5WwMW0zmdEDM:&tbnh=102&tbnw=135&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dthomas%2Bhart%2Bbenton%2BLord%2BHeal%2Bthe%2BChild%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DN), and Preparing the Bill, Benton conveyed the America of the 1920s and 1930s through his eye. Benton’s greatest achievements were his murals. Influenced by the Mexican muralists, like Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orosco, Benton tried to make bold statements about the America of the ordinary people through his great murals America Today , The Arts of Life In America, A Social History of Indiana (http://iub.edu/~iuam/online_modules/benton/), and A Social History of Missouri (http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Exhibit/5437/Benton.html). These works incited controversy from many sources. Conservatives railed against Benton’s depictions of strikes and Klu Klux Klan lynchings. Leftists railed that his murals didn’t fully attain a revolutionary art. These controversies only served to show the power of the murals to inspire thought on what viewers felt America was.
During the mid 1930s, Benton broke from his former Modernist and Marxist friends. Benton broke with Alfred Stieglitz and his circle of artists after Time magazine featured Benton in an article on American artists that did not include Modernist painters. His break with the radical left came after Benton declined to join with the condemnation of the destruction of Diego Rivera’s murals for the Rockefeller Center. Both conflicts were rather painful, as they involved the breaking of close friendships. And they created a reputation for Benton as being a reactionary conservative artist that is not wholy true. While Benton renounced communism as being inapplicable to American society, Benton’s politics remained very liberal. He became a strong New Deal Democrat who retained strong support for collectivist ideas. Henry Addams quotes Benton in his book Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original as saying: “I believe in the collective control of essential productive means and resources, but as a pragmatist I believe actual, not theoretical, interests do check and test the field of social change.” He also said, “If the radical movement is to get anywhere in this country it has got to drop Marxism as an outworn historical and economic notion and rely wholly on a pragmatic observance of developing facts. You can’t impose ideologies on people. The point I wish to make is that social revolution has got to come from the grass-roots”
Benton wasn’t perfect. He made crude homophobic remarks against art curators and art critics that are embarassing to read today. His World War II paintings indulged in Asian stereotypes. Benton got caught up in unnecessary fights during his tenure as teacher at the University of Kansas City Art Institute. But he remains for me a likable if imperfect man. He was willing to be unpopular rather than compromise on his beliefs, and he perservered as an artist in spite of tough times. Many people say that Benton’s art declined after World War II, but I still have some favorite paintings among these later works. His Trail Riders (http://www.nga.gov/image/a00000/a0000025.jpg), from 1964, is a wonderful painting of Mount Assinboine. Picnic, from 1952, is my favorite of all his paintings, a scene of his family and friends enjoying an outing in Martha’s Vineyard. It’s ironic that the study of rhythms and form that are the basis of Benton’s worked lived on in his most famous student, Jackson Pollock. I didn’t appreciate Pollock until I learned to see the underlying structures in Pollock’s work that he learned from Benton. Now Pollock is one of my favorite artists.
Thomas Hart Benton was a great American artist. In his paintings and murals, I see something of the energy and rawness of the America of the early twentieth century. His art incited controversy and condemnation among many art critics and radicals of both the political left and right. But Benton’s work also inspired admiration from me and for others for showing an America that is now gone. In Henry Adam’s book, he gives this last quote by Thomas Hart Benton:
“I have a sort of inner conviction that for all the possible limitations of my mind and the disturbing effects of my processes, for all the contradicting struggles and failures I have gone through, I have come to something that is in the image of America and the American people of my time. This conviction is in me pretty deeply. My American image is made up of what I have come across, of what was ‘there’ in the time of my experience- no more, no less.”