Thomas Hart Benton (American 1889-1975)
was an American painter and muralist. Along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, he was at the forefront of the Regionalist art movement. His fluid, almost sculpted paintings showed everyday scenes of life in the United States. Though his work is perhaps best associated with the Midwest, he created scores of paintings of New York — where he lived for over 20 years, Martha’s Vineyard - where he summered for much of his adult life, the American South and the American West.
Benton taught at the Art Students League of New York from 1926 to 1935 and at the Kansas City Art Institute from 1935 to 1941. His most famous student, Jackson Pollock, whom he mentored in the Art Students League, would go on to found the Abstract Expressionist movement—wildly different from Benton’s own style. Jackson Pollock often said that Benton’s traditional teachings gave him something to rebel against. However, art scholars have recognized the Pollock’s organizational principles continued to follow Benton’s teachings even after his move away from realism, with forms composed around a central vertical pole with each form counterbalanced by an equal and opposite form.
Benton’s students in New York and Kansas City included many painters who would make significant contributions to American art. Among the dozens of other artists Benton impacted as a teacher were Pollock’s brother Charles Pollock, Charles Banks Wilson, Frederic James, Lamar Dodd, Reginald Marsh, Robert MacDonald Graham, Charles Green Shaw, William Wind McKim, Margot Peet, Jackson Lee Nesbitt, Roger Medearis, Aaron Pyle, Glenn Gant, Albert Pels, Fuller Potter, Fred Shane, Delmer J. Yoakum and Daniel Celentano.
In 1941, Benton was dismissed from the Art Institute after calling the typical art museum “a graveyard run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists and a swing in his gait” with further disparaging references to, as he claimed the excessive influence of homosexuals in the art world.
During World War II, Benton created a widely distributed series titled The Year of Peril, which brought into focus the threat to American ideals by fascism and Nazism. Following the war, Regionalism fell from favor, eclipsed by the rise of Abstract Expressionism. Benton remained active for another 30 years, but his work focused less on social commentary and more on creating stylized bucolic images of pre-industrial farmlands. He also painted a number of murals, including Lincoln (1953) at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Trading At Westport Landing (1956) at The River Club in Kansas City, Father Hennepin at Niagara Falls (1961) for the Power Authority of the State of New York, Turn of the Century, Joplin (1972) in Joplin, Missouri, and Independence and the Opening of The West at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. His work on the Truman Library mural initiated a friendship with the former U.S. President that lasted for the rest of their lives. Benton died in 1975 at work in his studio, just as he completed his final mural, The Sources of Country Music for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee.
In 1977, Benton’s 2½ story Victorian residence and carriage house studio in Kansas City officially became the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site. The site remains virtually unchanged, with clothing, furniture, and paint brushes still in place since Benton’s death and is open for guided tours. The site also displays 13 original works of Benton’s art.