Thomas Hart Benton has been considered among the most popular American artists of the twentieth century, renowned for his regionalist aesthetic and many mural projects. He was also an important teacher, influencing an entire generation of artists.
Born into a family of famous politicians, Benton grew up in Washington, D.C., where he first studied art at the School of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. After working as a cartoonist for the Joplin, Missouri, newspaper The American in 1906, he studied briefly at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. From 1908 to 1911 he lived in Paris, attending traditional art academies and studying and painting in an impressionist style under the supervision of John Thompson (1882-1945). Benton’s association with STANTON MACDONALD-WRIGHT in Paris, however, determined his modernist leanings of the next decade.
In New York he became an active member of the avant-garde, exhibiting color abstractions at the Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters in 1916 and at the progressive Daniel Gallery in 1917 and 1924. Service in the U. S. Navy from 1918 to 1919 interrupted his career; he resumed it with a new interest in socially relevant art. As a result, his style changed and he was drawn to a new format, large-scale murals. In the mid-1920s he traveled throughout America, attempting to express in his art the regional diversity of the country.
His first mural project, which he worked on from 1916 to 1926, was entitled The American Historical Epic (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo.). In the early 1930s he created his two most famous mural cycles, America Today, 1930-31, for the New School for Social Research (now located in the Equitable Center, New York), and The Arts of Life in America, 1932, for the Whitney Museum of American Art (now in the New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut).
From 1926 until 1935, when he left New York, Benton taught at the Art Students League. His move to the Midwest in 1935 was prompted by an invitation to teach at the Kansas City Art Institute and a commission to paint a mural for the Missouri State Capital. Among his later mural commissions were those for Lincoln University, Jefferson City, Missouri, 1954; the Power Authority of the State of New York, Massena, 1961; and the Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, Missouri, 1962.
Thomas Hart Benton, An Artist in America (1937; 4th rev. ed., Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983), with afterword by Matthew Baigell § Thomas Hart Benton, An American in Art (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1969) § Mary Scholz Guedon, Regionalist Art -- Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood: A Guide to the Literature (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1982), an extensive, annotated bibliography § Karal Ann Marling, Tom Benton and His Drawings: A Biographical Essay and a Collection of His Sketches, Studies, and Mural Cartoons (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985) § Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), with bibliographical notes, published in conjunction with the exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo., and others.