Thomas Hart Benton
The following two essay segments were part of a larger essay written in 2000 by Marianne Berardi for the catalogue of the Thomas Hart Benton exhibition held at Owen Gallery, New York, from October 14 through December 15, 2000.
The Mural Paintings
Once Benton was satisfied that the clay model was the right preparatory tool for achieving a well-resolved composition in his painting, he set out to design modern art on a monumental scale, as mural painting. At some basic level, Benton seems always to have been attracted to work on a monumental scale. In addition, as the son of a politician, he instinctively liked to attract the attention of the public as a whole.. As has already been mentioned, as a child he was profoundly moved by the murals in tile Library of Congress. In the 1930s he set out to create paintings of similar monumental scale, but to fill them with modern forms and American subjects.
There were a number of other factors, some circumstantial, some profoundly personal, which lay at the heart of Benton's decision to take up mural painting and deserve mention. The first was that he had begun reading history again, as he'd done as a teenager, after a long period away from it. During the period he was in the Navy Benton discovered a copy of the mid-19th-century illustrated History of the United States by J A. Spencer in the boarding house where he was staying. Before long he was reading and rereading it late into the night, and looking at the illustrations which had a powerful resonance for him. He asked himself, "Why could not such subject pictures dealing with the meanings of American history possess interesting properties, deliverable along with their meanings?  Of course, he did not wish to express 19th-century meanings in a 19th-century style. His idea was to find a language that could express modern concepts -- largely Marxist concepts -- through a modern language of form. While Benton never confessed the fact, it seems likely that he found a model for his approach in the work of the great Mexican modernists Rivera, Orozco and Siqueros, who began producing their great murals in the early 1920s.
Of all the reasons that probably led Benton to take up mural painting, the most important seems to have been the death of his father. Since about 1912, when Benton had come home from Paris in disgrace, he and his father became estranged. Colonel M. E. Benton did not appreciate nor did he approve of his eldest son's career choice, and the two barely communicated for almost fourteen years. In 1924, however, Benton went back to Neosho and reconnected with his father as he lay on his deathbed, a victim of throat cancer. In his 1938 memoir, An Artist in America, Benton described his reunion with his father, and alludes to the effect the experience had upon the future course of his life as a painter:
Shortly after his father's death, Benton began making sketching trips around the United States. (The first of these focused on the region of Southwest Missouri and Northwest Arkansas where he had traveled with his father as a child). He filled up sketchbook after sketchbook, in a manner not unlike that of Boardman Robinson, who had made vivid reportorial drawings while traveling with John Reed in Russia and Eastern Europe. The sketches Benton made during these trips provided the raw material for an explosion of mural painting, which was concentrated into the brief period of just five years, from 1930 to 1935.
Whether working in egg tempera, watercolor, oil, lithography or clay, or on an intimate easel painting or on a football field-length mural, Benton created bold images that in retrospect have a definite '30s "Deco" quality. Characteristically they possess pronounced undulations, and intense color and/or theatrical tonal contrasts as insistent as Michelangelo's Mannerist work and Caravaggio's altarpieces. Moreover, every single object in a Benton picture is subordinated to the shape of the overall composition, which is usually designed from a high vantage point so as to create a fairly deep sense of space. His vivid imagery not only refuses to sit still, but is so graphically designed (complete with an unflinching and often crude sense of caricature to the figures' bodies and faces) that specific paintings are easy to recall from memory after being viewed only once. I think it goes without saying that this specific pictorial approach, which Benton crafted with great care and intention, has no gray area: you either love it or hate it. It would appear that this type of painting would be easy to mimic, but as many artists, copyists, and forgers of Benton paintings have learned, their efforts usually fall far short of the mark.
In the space of just five years, from 1930 to 1935, Benton produced four enormous mural cycles, consisting of about 7,000 square feet of canvas, which he populated with some over 1,000 figures.  Oddly, he worked in a medium seldom used on a large scale, the painstaking old master technique of egg tempera, which he seems to have liked both because of its bright, clear colors, and because the paint dried quickly. The themes of his murals were America Today (painted for the New School of Social Research, 1930) The Arts of Life in America (painted for The Whitney Studio Club Mural,1932), A Social History of Indiana (painted for the State of Indiana's pavilion at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair), and A Social History of Missouri (painted for the House Lounge in the Missouri State Capitol Building, Jefferson City, 1935/6). Of these only the Missouri Mural is still in its original location.
The major pictorial problem posed by mural painting was the organization of a great number of active figures over large stretches of linear space. How could an artist control the way forms are read over a much longer surface than one could take in all at once?
In his first complete mural, America Today, Benton's solution was to compose in vignettes, such as Cotton Loading or Lumber, Corn and Wheat, which came from the raw material Benton recorded directly from life on his sketching trips. Since the scenes existed in separate spaces, he needed a technique for separating one from another. His solution was to introduce actual moldings into his design, which not only created boundaries for the scenes, but introduced a jazzy geometric rhythm. The arbitrary nature of this solution, however, clearly bothered Benton, and by the time he got to the Whitney mural, he turned to a different solution.
In Benton's subsequent murals, he avoided moldings, and organized the material within a single, coherent space. To create a sense of visual order, he grouped the motifs in clusters, and used vertical posts at various intervals across the canvas, to provide a point of rest as the eye moved across the surface. This solution is illustrated in the diagrams he drew for his "Mechanics of Form Organization" articles, which were published several years earlier. Benton's Missouri mural shows his most fully realized application of this technique. Vertical poles organize a series of clustered units, each of which forms a triangular pattern. Benton then alternated upright triangles with inverted ones, leaving avenues of clear space between them to provide "breathing room" between the crowded triangular forms.
Benton's move toward Midwestern subject matter in the later 1920s and early 1930s isolated him from most of the New York critics. This was no doubt partly deliberate on Benton's Fart for he recognized that if he put a cow or an outhouse in his paintings no New York art critic would he willing to see it as modern art. A case in point is Benton's Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley of 1934, which contains both a cow and an outhouse, and has always been viewed as a quintessentially Regionalist work. Yet with equal justice it could be viewed as a modernist painting. The tipped-up table top on the right hand side derives directly from Picasso s Demoiselles d'Avignon. The swirling bands of color derive directly from the Synchromism of Benton's friend, Macdonald-Wright. The attempt to capture music in paint recalls the experiments of a number of abstract painters, from Arthur Dove to Wassily Kandinsky, who sought to create visual forms with the same abstract qualities as music. Given these modern features, it is appropriate that the figure playing the harmonica in the foreground is none other than Benton's pupil Jackson Pollock. Indeed, the swirling rhythms of the painting provide a clear precedent for the swirling drips of paint in Pollock's mature work.
For Benton, turning a rectangle into an outhouse didn't negate its "modern" properties as an abstract form. He felt the two could co-exist For the Modernists, the outhouse canceled out the geometric experiment.
At some point Benton, who had once viewed himself as a modernist, took on the persona of the archenemy of modern art. The point at which this shift occurred, however, is difficult to pinpoint, and even Benton's latest work contains many modernist features. Indeed, he painted pure abstractions at every phase of his career.
Although Benton is now chiefly remembered as a "regionalist," this term was developed surprisingly late, at the very end of 1934, after not only Benton, but Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry had already produced much of their most memorable work. The movement, in fact, was invented almost out of whole cloth by the New York art dealer named Maynard Walker, whose original goal was to sell paintings in the Midwest. Ironically the three members of the Regionalist triumvirate had not yet even met. As it happened, Walker failed to sell anything to the people of Missouri and Kansas, but attracted the attention of Henry Luce, who was looking for something to feature in a forthcoming article in Time magazine, which was to be illustrated, for the first time, in full color. Luce thought that paintings would serve nicely for Time's first color story, and that the theme of painting the Midwest and the American Scene would make a striking story angle. On Christmas Eve of 1934, the story appeared, with Benton on the cover, and an article hailing Benton, Curry, and Wood as leaders of a new painting movement that celebrated the American way of life. All three became celebrities overnight Largely disregarded up until that time by New York art critics, they were suddenly transformed into the three most famous American painters.
The Time magazine essay argued that Americans needn't look to Europe any longer for artistic inspiration. All an artist ever needed was right here, on American soil. Unfortunately, the general tone of the article was xenophobic, and Benton's long-time enemy, Stuart Davis, took advantage of the opportunity to denounce Benton as a Fascist in the communist maganzine, Art Front. Before long, Benton was deeply involved in complex and acrimonious disputes about nationalism and whether his images presented unflattering caricatures of different ethnic and racial types. Through a curious twist of fate, Bcnton was presented with an opportunity to leave New York very soon afterwards. The Kansas City Art Institute offered him a position as head of their painting department, and simultaneously, the state of Missouri commissioned him to produce a mural for the state capitol. Eager both to fulfill the Midwestern persona that Time had created for him, and to escape the controversies of New York, Benton jumped at the opportunity to move to the Midwest. In the long term, his reputation was not helped by a sardonic "Farewell to New York" which he wrote on the eve of his departure.
In the last sentence of the last paragraph of his autobiography, Benton was still pondering the rightness of his decision to hitch himself to the very brief brilliance of the Regionalist star.
While phrased as an assertion, the paragraph powerfully
raises the question of whether he made the right choice As it had in the
past, after Benton moved to Kansas City, he devoted considerable energy
to teaching, and used it to spur his own productivity. For the five years he taught at the Art Institute (1935-1941), Benton worked
in the classroom alongside his students -- treating them as fellow craftsman
in the workshop. In class he painted many of the greatest works of his career,
including his justly celebrated nude, Persephone, as well as other
unforgettable genre scenes, portraits, and landscapes of his native Missouri
-- among them, Frisky Day, in the present exhibition. Around 1938/9,
at the time he was working on Persephone, Benton became
increasingly interested in achieving more naturalistic effccts, and in the
present exhibition the painting Tobacco Sorters of 1944 shows Benton's
increasing technical mastery in this regard. Particularly
marvelous is the passage in the center of the painting, where a weathered
old farmer and a tiny young girl both examine a golden tobacco leaf, and
light filters through the veiny web of the leaf to silhouette the delicate
hand of the child. Benton
continued to create preparatory clay models, but the new use of texture
tended to make them less obvious. In Tobacco Sorters, for instance,
the forms are no longer hard and undulating -- like a can of Crayola-colored
earthworms, which is how one writer described Benton's paintings of the
20s. Likewise, the turbulent rhythms and sharp perspectives characterizing
Benton's work of the New York period quiet down in his Midwestern landscapes
of the 1940s. In a scene such as The Cotton Picker, Benton allowed
a flat expanse of field to be just that, and did not force it into undulating
motion, as he did in his earlier work.
17. Quoted in Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), pp. 87-88.
18. Thomas Hart Benton, An Artist in America (New York; Robert McBride and Company, 1938), p. 76-77.
19. Benton's Indiana mural covered 2,600 square feet of surface.
20. This fact was discovered by Adams, 1989, p. 216
21. Benton, 1938, p.276
22. Although Benton painted this luminous work in egg tempera as an image
for a tobacco company advertisement, he designed it with a seriousness that
has a distinctly uncommercial quality.
Biographical information on the author:
Marianne Berardi is the Old Master Paintings Specialist and Website Editor at Ewolfs.com, the online fine arts and antiquarian book auctioneers headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a former director of The Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art in St.Joseph, Missouri where, in 1993, she curated the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue, Under the Influence: The Students of Thomas Hart Benton, the first comprehensive exhibition of the work of Benton's pupils. She has taught art history at the Kansas City Art Institute, and at John Carroll University in Cleveland where she remains an Adjunct Professor. A specialist in the field of Northern Baroque art, Marianne Berardi received her doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh where she held the Kress Fellowship and the Theodore Rousseau Fellowship from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is preparing a catalogue raisonné on the work of the Dutch flower painter, Rachel Ruysch.
Ms. Berardi's essay is courtesy of the Owen Gallery, 19 East 75th Street, New York, New York and the author.
Selected articles mentioning Thomas Hart Benton from this magazine:
More resources on the Internet for Thomas Hart Benton (1899-1975):
If you are interested in "American Scene" art of the 1930s and 40s you may enjoy the WPA Period Print Collection Directory from the University of Montana. See also an article on the Museum of Art Tallahassee website. For American genre art, see these subject sections:
TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:
TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format.
For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11
Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.
Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.