The portrait of Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) painted by others is of a hardworking, harddrinking, opinionated, and controversial artist. Benton was a member of the Regionalist school, an American artistic movement that promoted realistic scenes of everyday American life. Benton and fellow Regionalists Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry were successful in briefly moving the focus of the American art world from New York to the Midwest.
Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri into a political family. His uncle and namesake was one of the first two U.S. Senators of the state, and his father was an attorney and career politician. Much to his father's chagrin, Benton had no desire to become a lawyer or a politician. He had encouragement from his mother to pursue his artistic inclinations, and obtained his first professional artist position at the age of 17 as a newspaper cartoonist. After a 3-month stint at military school, Benton attended the Chicago Institute of Art. Benton left the Institute for Paris, eventually landing in New York in 1912. The New York art world became a great disappointment for Benton. He perceived a disconnect between the world of art and everyday experiences of common Americans. Benton believed art should be representative, with the subject as the focal point. He wanted to paint reality, not representation through abstract forms or color. Benton's technique for obtaining this reality was to create threedimensional clay models of his human subjects before painting these figures in twodimensional form on the canvas.
In his 1937 autobiography, An Artist in America, Benton chronicled in words and sketched his experiences as he traveled throughout different regions of the country. Benton wanted to capture what he loved about America before it disappeared. Although Benton viewed the skyscraper as evidence that Americans were regaining artistic awareness, he blamed urban dwellers for pursuing progress as the quintessential American value.
Following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Benton painted 10 huge propaganda pieces titled The Year of Peril. As Regionalism's popularity waned after the war, Benton tried to find a new place in the American art world. Viewing the rapid postwar urbanization as stripping Americans of their unique characteristics, Benton turned his attention to landscape painting.
Benton is best known for his public murals hanging in Missouri, in the Missouri State Capital Building in Jefferson City and the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, and in Tennessee, in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. Virtually every mural unveiling created a flurry of controversy, and criticism came from all corners. Art critics claimed his work was too cartoonish; social realists criticized his murals because he did not blame capitalism for America's hardships; Midwestern political elites criticized them as tawdry.
Benton chronicled the activities of everyday American people, which he captured in his murals, paintings, and drawings. In essence, Thomas Hart Benton was a recorder of 20th-century American history. He died in his studio in January 1975.
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