Thomas Hart Benton
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
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.