Thomas Hart Benton, an American painter and muralist, was born on April 15, 1889 in Neosho, Missouri. Born to a family of politicians and attorneys, Benton traveled with his father on political tours. At the age of six or seven, Benton drew his first mural, a charcoal multicar freight train.
At the age of 17, Thomas Hart Benton worked as a cartoonist for The Joplin American. Although his father wished for him to study law, Benton left Chicago at the age of 18 and studied at the Art Institute with Frederick Oswald from 1907 to 1908. Benton then studied in Paris for three years; briefly under Jean-Paul Laurens at the Academie Julian, and for a longer period under Jean-Paul Laurens at the Academie Collarosi, where he worked independently.
In 1911 Benton returned to the States after his father decided he could no longer support his son in Paris. When he returned home he resided in New York, experimenting with styles of Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Synchronism. The last was influenced by his friend, Stanton MacDonald Wright. During the decade from 1910 to 1920, Benton was a dedicated modernist. However, most of his paintings from this time period were destroyed in a fire.
Thomas Hart Benton’s naval experience from 1918 to 1919 led his beginning as an American Scene realist with the mural The American Historical Epic for the New School of Social Research in New York City. This was key to the support of the artists in the Federal Art Projects. From 1926 to 1935, Benton lived in New York City, teaching at the Art Students League of New York. From 1935 to 1941 he taught at the Kansas City Art Institute. He served as a mentor for Jason Pollock, who went on to find the Abstract Expressionist movement.
In 1932, Benton was chosen to produce murals of Indiana life. This became the state’s contribution to the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, Illinois. Stirring much controversy, the murals included Ku Klux Klan members in full regalia. They are currently on display at Indiana University in Bloomington. Also in 1932, Benton created a set of large murals, titled The Arts of Life in America, for the Whitney Museum of American Art. On December 24, 1934 Benton was featured on one of the earliest color covers of Time Magazine. In 1935, he created a mural for the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. The mural stirred controversy because of its depiction of slavery and inclusion of outlaw Jesse James and political boss Tom Pendergast. In 1957, he was commissioned by Robert Moses, chairman of the board of the Power Authority of the State of New York, to paint a mural for the Power Authority at Massena. Benton conducted extensive research on the theme, which was the Canadian expedition of Jacques Cartier in the mid 1500s.
With the idea that art should express one’s surroundings rather than abstract ideas, Thomas Hart Benton became the leader of the Regionalist School, comprised of the most talented and gifted of the 1930s muralists. His paintings displayed powerful use of modeling and scale. Benton is likely the most important painter of the American Scene movement, creating works that combined elements of modernism and realism. His signature painting of laboring figures was of the regionalist genre. Thomas Hart Benton also created landscapes and portraits, and was a lithographer, completing 80 lithographs, between 1929 and 1945. Aside from his artistic accomplishments, Benton also wrote two autobiographies, An Artist in America, and An American Art.
Thomas Hart Benton was married in 1922 to Rita Piacenza, with whom he had two children, a daughter and a son. From 1935, Benton established a studio in Kansas City where he painted until his death in 1975 at the age of 85.