Benton, Thomas Hart – American Artist

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)

Thomas Hart Benton was born April 15, 1889, in Neosho, Missouri. Named after his great-uncle, a prominent U. S. Senator, Thomas Hart Benton emerged from a political background with love for America and its back roads. As the son of a popular Missouri congressman, Benton traveled extensively with his father on the campaign trail. In 1907, he left Missouri to study at the Art Institute in Chicago and the Academie Julian in Paris. Returning to the United States in 1911, Benton became an instructor at the Art Students’ League in New York City mentoring such young artists as Jackson Pollack.

Traveling extensively throughout the country, Benton was exposed to a panorama of American experience, along with John Stuart Curry and Grant Wood, he became associated with Regionalism, an artistic movement best known for its emphasis on agrarian cultural ideals. The daily activities and seasonal rhythms of farm life dominate Benton’s work.

Although he experimented in his early work with many of the modern movements and styles which were gaining popularity at the time, Benton was more interested in depicting the true spirit of American life through realism. During World War I Benton served as a naval draftsman. Benton described this period as the most formative of his career: “(It) was the most important thing that, so far, I had ever done as an artist. My interests became, in a flash, of an objective nature. The mechanical contrivances of building, the new airplanes, the blimps, the dredges, the ships of the base, because they were so interesting in themselves, tore me away from all my grooved habits. I left for good the art-for art’s-sake world I had hitherto lived. (It) opened a way to a world which, always around me, I had not seen. That was the world of America.” Benton noted that “the reality that we, as full human beings, generally know and act upon is more complicated. It is not the reality of direct perception but that which such perception leads to. The associations attached thereto constitute what we call our knowledge of things; they are our ultimate human reality.”

The raw expressionistic and individualistic tone of his work reflected his decision to adopt American subjects and themes in order to create a truly American art that speaks to its people, its history and its culture. By the time of his death in 1975, Benton authored a body of work that remains as perhaps the most sweeping chronicle of American culture in the 20th century.

“Benton fits the familiar mold of Jack London, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway – the roughneck artist, the temperamental genius disguised as a Joe. But beneath the denim and swagger, there lurks something else: a soul, Benton said, “impregnated with a deep sense of value of life, of the beauty of the basic human emotions and the sadness of the drama of human striving.” – Verlyn Klinkenborg, p. 100, Smithsonian, April 1989.

Today, Benton’s work is included in the collection’s of hundreds of museums including the Metropolitan Museum, The National Gallery, The Whitney Museum, and the Guggenheim.

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