Thomas Hart Benton

1889 – 1975

Along with John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton was the third member of the prominent American Regionalist trio. The sculptural forms in his paintings and lithographs were always dynamic, perhaps an influence from his early association with modern art movements, especially the Synchronists, during his studies in Europe. This dynamism combined with the careful draftsmanship he developed while an artist in the navy, and led to his distinctive style.

He became a well known muralist; the first mural he did being America Today done for the New School for Social Research in 1930-31. A year later, he was commissioned to do the state of Indiana murals for the 1933 “Century of Progress” exposition in Chicago. Benton did not shy away from social controversy, and one of the themes in the mural was no exception. In addition to showing Indiana agriculture and industry, the murals contained parts of the state’s history that many wanted to forget – the Ku Klux Klan.

His art and reputation resulted in his picture being on the cover of Time magazine featuring a 1934 article on him, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry as being new heroes of American art and extolled their Regionalist outlook as producing a significant art movement.

A combination of events caused him to leave New York. Although Benton’s ideals were associated with the left wing, he alienated the New York left wing community because he did not want to become involved in politics. In 1935, the shift toward Abstract Expressionism was happening and Benton’s romantic realism began to be less appreciated in sophisticated New York. He returned to Missouri where he created a mural for the state capitol. This mural also caused controversy because of the inclusion of slavery, and depictions of the outlaw Jesse James and the notorious political boss, Tom Pendergast.

Benton settled in Kansas City, teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute. The area around Kansas City afforded great models for the disappearing rural way of life. This was the period in which he was most active doing lithographs. Benton is best known for his black and white lithographs showing rural Americans in a heroic way.

He was fired from the KC Art Institute in 1941 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 what he claimed were excessive influences of homosexuals in the art world.

When the Truman Library was constructed in Independence, Missouri, Benton was selected to do the murals. This commission began a friendship with the former President that lasted the rest of their lives.

Benton’s Kansas City studio is now a state historic site.

“Fire in the Barnyard”
lithograph signed in the margin SOLD
Archivally matted and framed