“A good painting to me has always been like a friend. It keeps me company, comforts and inspires.” - Hedy Lamarr
Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) is one of the best-known muralists associated with the American Scene Painting movement of the 1930s. Benton’s portrayals of pre-industrial agrarian life and his later emphasis on the plight of the working class in the post-Depression era earned him a reputation as a social activist, and he gained publicity through public works projects. Benton’s Regionalism gained him recognition through public art works in highly visible locations such as banks, post offices, and political buildings. The Indiana Murals, Benton’s most well-known and most controversial work, is exemplary of both the Regionalist style of painting and his focus on social commentary. As part of the state of Indiana’s contribution to the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, the Indiana Murals depict the oppressed farmers, Ku Klux Klan members, and big business as negative actors in society. After Benton’s success with the Indiana Murals, he took a teaching position at the Kansas City Art Institute. For the rest of his career, Benton remained in the Midwest and focused on public murals, leaving a legacy that captured the character of the collision between agrarian life and industrialisation in 1930s America.
Though Benton gained fame as an artist in cities such as New York, Chicago, and Paris, he was born in rural Neosho, Missouri. Despite his strong political background and the encouragement of his congressman father, Benton shunned politics in favour of art school. After a short stint as a cartoonist, Benton enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago in 1907 and later transferred to the Academie Julian in Paris. In Paris, Benton met renowned Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, whose use of vivid colours and portrayal of social realities would heavily influence Benton’s style during the formative years of Regionalism.
After returning from Paris in 1913, Benton took up a job as a draughtsman for the Navy and switched from painting landscapes to sketching scenes from shipyard life. These early years as an artist, characterised by migration between disparate environments like the rural American Southeast, the Paris art scene, and the Naval shipyards, played an integral role in crystallising Benton’s view of the tension between cosmopolitan and agrarian life.
Back in the New York art scene during the 1920s, Benton taught at the Art Students League and began to gain acclaim for his works that addressed the social realities of the city. Benton also became more directly involved in leftist politics, an association that may have directly spawned the works known today as part of the Regionalist movement. In many ways, Regionalism thrived in the wake of the American art renaissance at the turn of the century. The success of the Ashcan School (1910) demonstrated a uniquely American movement away from dependence on European art aesthetic and sought to claim a legitimacy for a strictly American art at the international level.
American Scene Painting during the 1930s took up the challenge of the Ashcan School by depicting everyday life in America in a representational, easily accessible style. Modern art historians generally consider Regionalism to be the subset of American Scene Painting, which deals more directly with the incorporation of art into the public hemisphere in order to evoke nostalgia for pre-industrial America. Social Realism, the other subset of American Scene Painting, places a heavier emphasis on art as a vehicle for political and social critique. Noted Regionalists include Grant Wood and Ben Curry, both contemporaries of Benton. These painters primarily gained publicity through federal art projects funded as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and their works reflect the desire to appeal to a public aesthetic.
Benton eventually moved to Kansas City, where he painted some of his most well-known works such as the Independence Murals and the Truman Library, and where he lived for until his death in 1975. Benton’s works during his years in Kansas City reflected his new environment: The beauty of the rural Midwest and the life of small farmers. At the same time, the relentless forces of American industrialisation and capitalism made their way into Benton’s works, and American icons of progress, railroads, city culture, and cars, begin to encroach on the Benton’s idyllic pastoral scenes. Towards the end of Benton’s life, he turned away from the role of social critic and produced more portraits and works for decorative purposes. Benton died in 1975, in his studio, but left a rich history of American culture and society during the 1930s and 40s in his wake.
Benton began the mural above, “Independence and the Opening of the West” at the Truman Library and Museum in 1960. The artist documents the Plains Indians’ struggle against the hunter, trapper, the French and the permanent settlers. Independence was known as the last city before the frontier. While Benton was painting this mural Truman and he became friends and Truman was even known to climb up on the scaffolding with the artist and occasionally daub a bit of paint on the sky. Although Truman did not want to be immortalised as a subject in a mural, he viewed Benton’s work favourably.