Looking at America

He was larger than life, a brawler and a drinker, but Thomas Hart Benton’s prints, created during the Great Depression, spoke of hope and courage to the millions of Americans who had lost so much. While Benton’s public murals garnered him much acclaim, it was his prints that captured the quiet, melancholy, and sometimes, tragic moments in the daily lives of rural Americans.

Thomas Hart Benton Time Magazine Cover

Thomas Hart Benton
TIME Magazine cover
December 24, 1934

Thomas Hart Benton Prints for Hollywood

Benton was featured on the cover of TIME magazine in 1934, for an article about Regional artists, although Benton was schooled in Chicago and Paris and spent twenty years living, painting and teaching in New York. Benton taught at the Art Students League, where he mentored Jackson Pollack, whose early works reflect the influence of his teacher.

Thomas Hart Benton, Departure of the Joads from The Grapes of Wrath, 1939

Thomas Hart Benton
Departure of the Joads from The Grapes of Wrath, 1939

In 1939, when Twentieth-Century Fox decided to film John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, it was Thomas Hart Benton they commissioned to create the movie posters. The Departure of the Joads, which was also made into a billboard, depicts the departure of the family from drought-ridden Oklahoma, packing an old jalopy that, they hope, will take them to California.

The Power and Passion of Thomas Hart Benton’s Prints

Thomas Hart Benton Billboard for The Grapes of Wrath 1939

Thomas Hart Benton, Billboard for The Grapes of Wrath, 1939

Thomas Hart Benton died in 1975, at age 85, while completing a mural for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Art critics and scholars still write about this controversial artist, who some called an aristocratic populist.

Benton was born into a family of privilege, was sophisticated, well read and well educated but liked to portray himself as just plain folk. In his autobiography, An Artist in America, Benton wrote, “For all the possible limitations of my mind and the distorting effect of my processes, for all the contradicting struggles I have gone through, I have come to something that is in the image of America and the American people of my time. The conviction is in me pretty deeply. My American image is made up of what I have come across, of what was there in the time of my experience. No more and no less.”

His elongated figures, and forms of lights and darks that flow across his compositions, create the feeling of power and passion in Thomas Hart Benton’s prints.

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