Thomas Hart Benton - An American Artist

Self-Portrait with Rita

Recently, Evergreen Fine Art Gallery held an exhibit of work by American artist Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975). The outstanding collection consisted of sketches, studies, lithographs and small paintings.

I’ve seen many of his more polished pieces hanging on museum walls in Missouri but the artwork shown in Colorado was more intimate. Here on paper, the artist’s search for a subject’s form was clearly evident.

Born in Neosho, Missouri to a family of politicians, Thomas Hart Benton chose painting as his profession. Benton began studying at the Chicago Art Institute and continued his training in Paris where he met some of the leading artists of the day.

After a stint in the Navy serving as an illustrator during World War I, Benton set up shop in New York City. His early paintings were influenced by the avant-garde but seem uncertain and confused.

Benton eventually embraced his natural style and became inspired by the music, folk tales and working class of rural America. Along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, he co-founded the realist art movement known as Regionalism.

Benton’s large-scale, historically-themed paintings were controversial but they also garnered him great notoriety as a muralist. In the mid 1930s, Thomas Hart Benton appeared on the cover of Time Magazine and was probably the most popular artist working in America.

Benton was also a respected instructor at the Art Students League of New York where he taught the next generation of emerging artists. His prized pupil was a rowdy young man from California named Paul Jackson Pollock.

Under Benton, students were grounded in the fundamentals of composition, drawing, painting and art history. During class, Pollock learned about the importance of structure, preparation and patience.

While they were together on a summer sketching tour of the western United States, Tom extolled the virtues of realism. Benton was like a father-figure to Pollock who eagerly absorbed his mentor’s ideas.

Later though, Pollock changed course and rebelled against realism as he sky-rocketed to fame during the abstract expressionist movement. Many people believe Jackson Pollock is the greatest American painter of all-time.

Frustrated by the people, politics and lifestyle that typified the Northeast, Benton vehemently rejected abstract art and returned to his homeland. Back in the Show-Me-State, he accepted a teaching position at the Kansas City Art Institute.

Always on the go, Benton was a hard living son-of-a-gun whose work ethic was undeniable. He spent so much time preparing sketches, studies and sculpted models that by the time he put brush to board, the painting was finished in a flash.

Benton’s work is a mix of the academic and the modern. His reverence for the Old Masters is blended with his knowledge of the new. His finished paintings are remarkably simplified as all unnecessary details are ruthlessly eliminated.

Benton’s artwork is athletic, it exudes a dynamic masculinity that features strong lighting and bold coloring. His billowy compositions seem to flow like sheet music as his elongated figures swirl dramatically across the scene and look like they’ve been chiseled out of granite.

Critics called him stubborn, arrogant and outspoken but armed with a confrontational disposition, Benton was never afraid to fire back. As a matter of fact, it was his vitriolic rants leveled against the art establishment that cost him lucrative jobs.

After World War II, extreme abstraction steamrolled through the art world. The recognizable form was destroyed as paint was splashed and splattered onto canvases across the country. Benton’s Regionalism was dismissed as a sentimental caricature of days gone by.

Relegated to a mere footnote in most art history books, the Regionalists have recently been rediscovered. A new appreciation for their philosophy and work definitely warrants further study.

At a time when the art world was consumed with all things French, Benton broke from European Tradition and traveled to our heartland where he romanticized the regional scene.

He was a strong-willed searcher from Missouri that always lived life on the edge. Thomas Hart Benton was a teacher, writer, musician and most truly of all, an American artist.

Arts of the West

Cradling Wheat

Desert Still Life

Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek

People of Chilmark

Plowing it Under


Sources of Country Music

The Wreck of the Old 97

Time Magazine Cover (1934)


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