Thomas Hart Benton
Biography of American Regionalist Painter.

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The Lord is My Shepherd (1926)
Whitney Museum of Art, New York.
For other Regionalist works, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)


Artistic Training
American Scene Painting (Regionalism)
Decline of Realism and Regionalism

Paintings by Thomas Hart Benton
are also widely available online
in the form of poster art.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.

Art Definition, Meaning.


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).



Artistic Training

Benton was born in Newton County, Missouri. He was named after his great uncle, a five term Missouri senator. Many of his family members were involved in politics, but the young Benton preferred art: his favourite subjects were railways and Native Americans, inspired by a meeting with Buffalo Bill and Geronimo. He was also influenced by the works of Frederic Remington (1861–1909), the American painter and illustrator who specialised in the depictions of the Wild West. In 1907 Benton enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute, where he took up painting and in 1909 he moved to Paris to continue his studies at the Julian Academy. In Paris he met with many expatriate modern artists including Diego Rivera (1886-1957), the primitivist sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880–1959), modernist John Marin (1870-1953), Synchromist painter Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890–1973) and lithographer Leon Kroll (1884-1974). This experience widened Benton's horizons and his early works explored a range of styles including Impressionism, Divsionism or Pointillism, Synchromism, Cubism and Constructivism. In particular he explored Synchromism, an idea based on the concept that colour and sound can be combined so that you can almost 'hear' the colour on canvas. The movement was founded in 1912 by two American artists Stanton MacDonald-Wright (1890-1973) and Morgan Russell (1886-1953).


American Scene Painting and Regionalism

Benton returned to New York in 1913, serving in the army during the war years. In the 1920s he declared himself an 'enemy of modernism', partly in response to the 1913 Armory Show which despite public hostility was causing a number of American artists to take an interest in abstract art. But Benton wasn't one of them. He turned instead to a more naturalistic realism, a style which later became known as Regionalism. An additional motive was his desire - like many other painters - to construct an authentic American art, using only American images and themes. By the 1930s, Regionalism, along with its ethical cousin Social Realism formed part of a broad movement known as American Scene Painting, which struck a popular chord with many people, not least because it offered a positive antidote to the gloom of The Great Depression which was ravaging the country. Although Benton was one of the key figures in Regionalism, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry were also important, as was Maynard Walker (1896-1985) the Kansas-born journalist and art dealer, whose promotional activities in support of Regionalism (including his famous 1933 Kansas City Art Institute exhibition entitled "American Painting Since Whistler") were instrumental in helping to secure nationwide recognition for the three painters.


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 (1541–1614). 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 itself.

American Scene Murals

Benton also produced a number of urban mural paintings, some which were surrounded in controversy. In 1932 he began work on the Indiana Murals, a state commission for the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. Benton painted regular working citizens and their history, including figures of the Ku Klux Klan. The artist liked to call a 'spade a spade', it was an extension of his Realism. He felt that the Indiana murals should include controversial elements alongside the positive images of civic pride. Critics however were divided. Some believed that the murals were the most artistic at the Exhibition, while others disliked Benton's style and subject matter. Benton himself described the murals as 'A Dream Fulfilled.' The fact that Benton had only 63 days to paint 232 feet of completed canvas shows his hardworking intensity, mastery of the medium and spatial organizational skills.

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 Benton’s 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.

Decline of Realism and Regionalism

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.

• For more biographies of American artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more about Regionalism and American Scene Painting, see: Homepage.

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