Thomas Hart Benton was one of the most popular, interesting and controversial artists of twentieth century America. He was born in Missouri in 1889. His father was a U.S. congressman. His great uncle, after whom he was named, was a U.S. senator.
Although Benton lived in New York for nearly twenty years, his painting reflected the people and folklore of the Midwest. Benton was critical of modern art and art critics. Ironically, one of the students over whom he had considerable influence, was Jackson Pollock.
Benton worked in oil, watercolor and created masterful lithographs, using a sculptural style and vivid colors.
Despite his conservative views about art, Benton was an outspoken opponent of racism.
Benton’s inclusion of lynchings and Ku Klux Klan members in his murals was controversial. The mural of the history of Indiana that he was commissioned to paint included events that many people did not want viewed publicly.
Probably his greatest mural was done for his home state of Missouri. A Social History of the State of Missouri graces the walls of the of the Missouri House of Representatives Lounge in Jefferson City.
One of the scenes in the mural shows a lone African American man, leaning on a tree, listening to a speech given by Benton’s father, Macenas Benton.
Dr. James Bogan, Professor emeritus of art history and film at Missouri University of Science and Technology, made a film about the mural in 1992, but was unable to identify the man in the mural.
Benton said that Guy Park, the former Governor of Missouri, called him into his office and told him that an important politician from St. Louis objected to the way Benton portrayed black people in his work, especially his graphic images of slavery.
He met with the politician and explained that he wanted to use the historic depictions to show the progress that African Americans had made in Missouri. He invited the man to model for the mural, and the man agreed.
Further research led Bogan to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he found an obituary of Jordan Chambers, who fit the profile of Benton’s description of the man. Chambers was described as the ‘Negro mayor of St. Louis,’ whose influence was powerful enough to deliver the critical vote for Harry Truman for democratic nomination to the Senate in the 1940.