Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Evelyna Kliassov: Thomas Hart Benton, American painter, muralist

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) was born in Neosho, Missouri and was a painter and muralist associated with the regionalist art movement during the 1930s . The movement consisted of artists who preferred scenes of rural everyday living-farms, factories, and bustling cities. His murals, combining modernist paintings and satirical social commentary expressed many of the ideas both in art and social theory at the time ( Adams, “Thomas” , 12) . Benton became famous in many cities, such as Chicago, New York , and even Paris. Many of his murals were in public places; sometimes people passing by were made models, sometimes he altered his work in response to comments from the public audience. He meandered through his early life as an art student in Chicago,painting and studying in Paris, and then eventually returning to teach in Missouri and to visit his father. Soon, after some inspiration, he took a sketching trip across the country, and the subject matter of his work came to be more of the South and the Ozark mountains of Missouri ( Adams , “Thomas” pg 20-32) , and he even began physically tracing the paths of his familial ancestors. He traveled even further south and drew things pertaining to American life such as the farmers in Georgia and also workers in the cotton fields, New Orleans nightlife, and the Mississippi river (Adams, “Intertwined Lives”, 54). He became interested in the regional differences form one place to another, and thus his talent for specificity and unique portrayal of a region was reflected in his art. Everywhere he went he was able to personally connect with the people and portray them, including their way of life, perfectly in his sketches.

Although Thomas Benton has famous murals (such as his famous “A Social History of Missouri” mural) here I have included his prominent inspirational sketches. I chose this artist because I really like that in some ways he went against the norm. For example, his drawings are not pristine and ‘perfectly’ neat. His works portrayed a realistically simple yet hard American life in the midwest or in the South. Sometimes with his cartoon-like exaggerations you can tell that the artist was doing the sketch on the spot, in the heat of the day, as some of the drawings are sometimes smudged or have several stains on them. It is very interesting for me to look at his American drawings because they are much more alive due to their scratchy,jagged uneven lines. In this way, the faces, the people, and the environment all have more emotion and the work has a more symbolic meaning, an overall immense understanding of human character and the rhythm of life. His work seems to always be in motion; every figure has life.

This is "Loading Cotton onto the Tennessee Belle" made in 1928 in pen and ink. It is a simple landscape showing rural American life themes (more specifically ties between men and machinery, men and the American land which were important relationships to Benton). I thought it was very representative of his artistic style. He made art not for just the elite, but for everyone to connect with and enjoy.

image: Image also found in Adams, Henry. Thomas Hart Benton: Drawing from Life.

This is "Wilbur Leverett" (1931) in pencil, pen,ink, and sepia wash on paper. Benton met the Leverett brothers in Missouri and made many sketches of them. I thought that this was very representative of how Benton would sketch an overall image of the scene, and then have a close up of particular individuals that stuck out to him, perhaps drawn in a different light or from a different angle. It shows how he found inspiration in the simple American rural lifestyle such as folk music, the countryside, and the outdoor life.

image: Image also found in Adams, Henry. Thomas Hart Benton: Drawing from Life.

This is " I Got a Gal on Sourwood Mountain" (1898). I really think Benton captures the spirit of the people, for example the fiddler and the dancing blonde with the farmer out on a weekend night. It shows his clear understanding of harmony and movement.


Adams, Henry. Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock. Bloomsbury Press,New York, NY 2009: 1-50

Adams, Henry. Thomas Hart Benton: Drawing from Life. Henry Art Gallery University of Washington ,Seattle. Abbeville Press, New York, NY 1993

link to his Famous “A Social History of Missouri” mural:

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