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 Thomas Hart Benton


 

 

Benton Thomas Hart


(1889-1975)

Thomas Hart Benton was born in Neosha, Missouri, the great-nephew of the American politician and statesman after whom he was named. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1907 to 1908; and he then went to Paris, where he studied at the Academie Julian until 1911. While in Paris, through his friendship with the painter Stanton Macdonald-Wright, he became strongly influence by the "Synchronist" school of painting. The Synchromists took an abstract approach to color, which they used to express emotion and mood rather than to depict reality. He continued to work in the Synchromist manner, even after his return to the United States in 1912. Despite having participated in the Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters in 1916, he broke with modernism and with the avant-garde in the early 1920's, and adopted an approach that he, and others, called "Regionalism", in which familiar scenes and characters from small-town life in the American Midwest are painted in a popular (even nostalgic), yet neither slick nor pandering, style.

The approach had roots in the populist socialism that had gained many adherents among idealistic young people in the late 1920's and early 1930's. Benton's figure drawing was accessible, often cartoon-like; his compositions were energetic and active; and his colors were rich. He painted mural scenes of American life in the early 1930's, including a well-known work for the New School for Social Research in New York City. He taught at the Art Students League of New York, where his students included Jackson Pollack, who would later become an important abstract expressionist. In 1934, when a Benton portrait was featured on the cover of "Time" magazine, both Benton and his Regionalism started catching the attention of a much larger public. In 1935, he became the director of the City Art Institute and School of Design in Kansas City, Missouri, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Throughout his career, Benton continued to reject the orthodoxies of modernism, which he saw as elitist, neurotic, and obscurantist. He hoped to produce a particularly American visual art, steeped in North American folk traditions and free of what he saw as the decadence of European high culture. One of his innovations was the representation of Mythological and Biblical narratives in American types. He worked in both mural and easel forms and wrote many articles on art, as well as two autobiographies.

 


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