The Lord is My Shepherd (1926)
Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)
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DEFINITION OF ART?
The American painter and muralist Thomas Hart Benton, was at the forefront of the American Regionalism movement, along with Grant Wood (1891-1942) and John Steuart Curry (1897-1946). His paintings show everyday scenes from American life, particularly those of the Midwest, although he also painted cityscapes of New York. He was also a popular muralist, receiving commissions throughout America. Benton trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and, between 1908-12, like the great Robert Henri (1865-1929) before him, the Julian Academy in Paris. Here he had access to the works of the French avant-garde, including Post Impressionists, Fauvists, Cubists, and those involved with Synchromism. On his return to New York he became part of the Alfred Stieglitz circle of modern art. However, around 1920 he moved away from avant-garde art and began producing genre paintings of American life in the South and Midwest. At the same time he began work on his first mural cycle, exhibiting sections in New York in 1923 and 1925. Out of all this he developed a style of down-to-earth realism, celebrating rural life but also satirizing city life. During the 1930s a movement called Regionalism gained momentum in America, and with it, Benton's fame rose. He received major commissions and took up a teaching post at the Art Students League, where he inspired pupils such as Jackson Pollock (1912-56). For more detail on this, see: Jackson Pollock's paintings (1940-56).
Painting and Regionalism
Notable Regionalist-style paintings by
Thomas Hart Benton include Prodigal Son (c.1939-1941, Dallas Museum
of Art); July Hay (1943, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York);
Poker Night (from A Streetcar Named Desire 1948), The
Lord is My Shepherd (1926), and Baptism in Kansas (1928) all
three in the Whitney Museum of Art, New York; and Hogs Killing a Rattlesnake
(1930, Art Institute of Chicago). He also created some powerful examples
of lithography, including
Departure of the Roads (1939, National Gallery of Art, Washington)
and Approaching Storm (1940, Metropolitan Museum of Art). Some
of his works show the influence of El Greco (15411614). In 1934,
Benton was featured, along with Wood and Curry, on the front of Time
magazine. They were heralded as the new heroes of American art, an appreciation
which helped to cement their personal reputations, as well as Regionalism
A mandate from the Painting and Sculpture, Department of the Treasury in the early 1930s demonstrates just how mainstream Regionalism was at the time. It stated that all federally funded murals which were being created for post offices nationwide must require the artist to visit the locality to assure local content and that they must have an 'American scene'. Benton, considered a leading figure was according to New York art critic Louis Kalonyme, a 'vital and significant artist' and the country's 'best mural decorator'. In 1935 he finally quit New York and returned to his native Missouri to become head of the Kansas City Art Institute and School of Design. In the same year he began work on a mural for the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City, entitled 'A Social History of Missouri'. This is considered one of Bentons best works, but like his previous murals, caused controversy for his inclusion of images of slavery, the outlaw Jesse James and the corrupt politician Tom Pendergast.
However, as the 1930s gave way to the industrial boom of World War II, the mood in America changed. By 1945, realism was associated with photographs of destroyed cities and Auschwitz, and abstraction was the new idiom. American Scene Painting and Regionalism were replaced by the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, led ironically by Benton's former pupil Jackson Pollock.
Paintings by Thomas Hart Benton can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.
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