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Thomas Hart Benton

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Thomas Hart Benton
American painter, 1889-1975
(Neosho, MO, April 15, 1889 - January 19, 1975, Kansas City, MO)

The son of a Missouri Congressman, Thomas Hart Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri on April 15, 1889. He first studied art in Washington DC, spent a year at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1907, then went to Paris, studying at the Académie Julian from 1908 to early 1909. Benton began as a Modernist in 1908, creating Synchromist abstractions focusing on non-representational color organization. The visual rhythm of his paintings would later inspire Jackson Pollock, Benton’s most famous student from the Art Student’s League in New York. Benton moved to New York in 1912, remaining there until 1935. He befriended Alfred Stieglitz, exhibiting his Synchromist works at Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery and at the Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters in 1916. Benton began to shift from Modern abstraction to Realism after joining the Navy in 1918. His work as an architectural draftsman at a naval base in Norfolk, Virginia required Benton to work in a realistic manner. Then in 1924, Benton returned to Neosho to visit his dying father. The conversation between his father and his old political friends was full of stories about American life. Benton’s interest was piqued; he traveled the backroads of the South and Midwest from the mid to late 1920s, exploring America. His mature career began in the late 1920s. Drawing on stories from American history and folklore, Benton strove to create grass roots American art, focusing on agrarian and industrial images. Benton soon founded American Regionalism with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry. The trio’s goal was to create art of and for the people; they spoke against Modernism as being too obscure for popular appeal. Benton turned to mural painting in the mid 1920s, creating monumental statements of American identity and values. His commissions included the ‘America Today’ series for the New School for Social Research (1930), ‘Social History of the State of Indiana’ for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, and ‘Social History of the State of Missouri’ for the Missouri State Capitol building in 1936. Benton’s fame was established by the early 1930s; he appeared on the December 24, 1934 cover of "Time" as the most famous artist in America. Benton settled in Kansas City, Missouri in 1935. He continued painting, but also produced lithographs and wrote anti-Modernist essays such as "America and/or Alfred Stieglitz." Benton taught at the Kansas City Art Institute in the late 1930s, and published his autobiography, "An Artist in America," in 1937. He illustrated John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath" in 1940, and he was hailed by Harry Truman as "the best damned painter in America." In the 1950s and 1960s, Benton turned to landscapes and portraits, remaining active right up to his death in Kansas City on January 19, 1975. A Benton centennial retrospective opened at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City in 1989 and later traveled to New York and Los Angeles. Benton’s art became less popular after World War II with the growing interest in Abstract Expressionism. Additionally, the "America" depicted in his images had changed beyond recognition. These developments did not detract from Benton’s work, however. As a painter of American life and history, Benton preserved elements of an American identity that later ceased to exist.


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