About the Artist
Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) chronicled the beauty, joys and sorrows of everyday life in America, until the day he died.
Benton was born in 1889 in Neosho, Missouri, the oldest of four children. He spent much of his childhood and adolescence in Washington, D.C., where his lawyer father, Maecenas Eason Benton, served as a Democratic member of Congress from 1897 to 1905. Hoping to groom him for a political career, Benton’s father sent him to Western Military Academy. After nearly two years at the academy, Benton convinced his mother to support him through two years at the Art Institute of Chicago, followed by two more years at the Academie Julian in Paris.
Education and Career
Benton returned to the States in 1912. He moved to New York where, with the continued financial support of his mother, he painted. One of his first jobs was painting sets for silent movies, which were being produced in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Benton credits this experience with giving him the skills he needed to produce his large scale murals.
When World War I broke out, Benton joined the Navy. He was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, where he was assigned to draw the camouflaged ships that sailed into the harbor. The drawings were done to enable identification of each ship, in the event that it was lost in battle. The work was perfectly suited for Benton, who had enjoyed drawing trains and boats when he was a child.
Benton credits being a “camofleur” as having a profound impact on the course of his career.
“When I came out of the Navy after the First World War,” he said, “I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to be just a studio painter, a pattern maker in the fashion then dominating the art world–as it still does. I began to think of returning to the painting of subjects, subjects with meanings, which people in general might be interested in.”
While he worked on his own original style that would become known as “Regionalism,” Benton also taught, first at a city supported school and then at The Art Students League from 1926 – 1935. One of his students was a young Jackson Pollock, who looked upon Benton, not just as a mentor, but as father figure.
In 1930, Benton was commissioned to paint a mural for the New School for Social Research. The America Today mural, now at the Met, was followed by many more commissions that catapulted his career. Jackson Pollock was one of the models Benton used for America Today.
The Regionalist Movement took hold in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. The Regionalist painters, like Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, depicted images that were reassuring and often comforting during a time of uncertainty in America. Time Magazine called Benton, “…the most virile of U.S. painters of the U.S. Scene” and put his self portrait on the cover of a 1934 issue that included a story about, “The Birth of Regionalism.”
Marriage and Family
In 1922, Benton married Rita Piacenza, a former student who had emigrated from Italy. The couple had two children. Their son, Thomas, nicknamed T.P., was an accomplished musician. He spent time as the first flutist with the Orlando Symphony Orchestra. Benton played harmonica and, in 1942, they released a recording on Decca records called, Saturday Night at Tom Benton’s. Accompanied by the American Chamber Music Group, T.P. played flute and Benton played harmonica.
Daughter, Jesse, was born in 1939. She married Mel Lyman, a musician and controversial founder of the Fort Hill Community in Boston. The Bentons were married for nearly fifty-three years. Thomas died in 1975, at age 85, while completing a mural for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Rita died about eleven weeks later.
Later Life and Legacy
In 1935, Benton left New York and moved back to Missouri, where he taught at the Kansas City Art Institute. Benton’s outspoken criticism of modern art, art critics and politically confusing rants, kept him out of step and often alienated from people in the political and art scenes. His talent, however, was enough to make him a sought-after artist, who has left behind some of the most spectacular murals, paintings and prints of American culture ever created.
Benton, whose paintings and murals contain high drama, was sought out by Hollywood producers to create paintings and posters for films. Twentieth Century Fox commissioned Benton to create lithographs for the film of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Benton was always true to his own vision, which was to hold a mirror up to, and record, daily life in America.
Benton’s work can be found at the Met, the Smithsonian, The Truman Library and many other museums and galleries across the U.S. He was elected to the National Academy of Design, has illustrated many books, wrote (and twice appended) his autobiography and is the subject of Thomas Hart Benton, a documentary by Ken Burns.