Paris, Manhattan and Martha’s Vineyard are hardly places we envision when thinking about Thomas Hart Benton. Yet in this engaging and surprising biography, the celebrated muralist and Regionalist painter owes as much to these three places as to his home state of Missouri and the Midwest prairies he painted so often. Benton was a self-professed “half-hobo and half-highbrow.” A grumpy and grandiose genius. An American original.
“I taught what I was trying to learn,” Benton said of his instruction at the Art Students League in New York City during the 1920s. He was updating Renaissance and Baroque composition using a “semi-Cubistic” process. For him, form and composition overpowered color and light, and Benton commonly made clay models before painting. His scenes had “bumps and hollows” that defined power in both landscapes and human figures.
Achieving that personal style—then defending it, sometimes with fury and quick fists, to artists and critics—became a lifelong struggle that led Benton to personify the 20th century’s turbulent politics and aesthetics. Born in 1889 in Neosho, Mo., he was the son of a U.S. Congressman and great-nephew of namesake Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a populist advocate for Manifest Destiny. Resisting his father’s wish for a political career, Benton still felt empowered by debates about the public good. “My original purpose,” he said of his art, “was to present a people’s history in contrast to the conventional histories which generally spotlighted great men, political and military events and successions of ideas. I wanted to show that the people’s behaviors, their action on the opening land, was the primary reality of American life…”
Young Tom first discovered murals when he wandered from his Capitol Hill home into the Library of Congress and espied sweeping images by Elihu Vedder depicting “Government” as a struggle between “Corrupt Legislation” and “Good Administration”; both forces balancing panels that pit “Anarchy” against “Peace and Prosperity.” At his mother’s urging, Benton studied art in Washington and became a newspaper cartoonist in Joplin, Mo. Studies at the Art Institute of Chicago led in 1909 to Paris and the conflict between modernism and tradition.
An art history professor at the University of Maine, Justin Wolff tells Benton’s story in rich detail and an open, unaffected style. He traces trends in politics and art with authority and ease, showing us how Benton’s leftist beliefs drove his art. Karl Marx, George Bernard Shaw and the American historian Charles Beard all informed Benton’s views, and Beard especially imbued Benton’s socioeconomic interpretation of American expansion. But while Benton taught art at The New School in New York during its socialist heyday, he rejected many of the left’s political dogmas.
Benton dabbled in abstract painting, but rejected the European modernism promoted in New York by Alfred Stieglitz. Instead, he embraced American populist themes that celebrated “localized knowledge” as essential for artistic integrity. With the Iowan Grant Wood and the Kansan John Steuart Curry, Benton created American Regionalism, which celebrated rural life. Their efforts led to Time magazine’s first cover story on art in 1934, depicting a self-portrait by Benton.
Wolff’s Benton is a contrary and contentious artist with a life and works as turbulent as his country’s scarred history. He meets Robert Henri, George Grosz, Diego Rivera, John Marin and Gertrude Stein in Paris; and in New York knows George Bellows, Marcel Duchamp, Stuart Davis and Rockwell Kent. He teaches and mentors (and his wife, Rita, mothers) Jackson Pollock, whose abstract expressionism Benton rejects, but whose troubled life he comforts. Benton jokes and sips bourbon with Harry Truman before beginning a mural at his presidential library in Independence, Mo. He debates art’s utility with Frank Lloyd Wright, argues politics with William Carlos Williams and Lewis Mumford and plays harmonica in a band with Pete Seeger’s father.
For Benton, especially, seeking the truth through art meant revealing America’s greed along with its goodness. In commissioned murals celebrating Missouri’s history, Benton painted the “Frankie and Johnny” legend about lust and revenge; and in one for Indiana he included a Ku Klux Klan rally. A panel titled “Aggression” in his mural on “The American Historical Epic” highlighted mutual slaughter by Indians and settlers.
Unlike Wood and Curry, Benton found authentic subjects on Manhattan subways and Martha’s Vineyard beaches. The Vineyard’s shifting moods come alive in his intriguing “Self-Portrait with Rita” on an ocean-side bluff, and in a horrifying painting of a family’s tragic escape from tidal waves during the 1938 hurricane. “People of Chilmark” shows island natives at work and play, their entwined and fluid figures rowing, sailing, swimming, raking, dancing and clutching a beach ball with all the color and brio of a Titian or El Greco. Benton said he felt truly himself on the island, where he spent summers and other seasons for half a century. He died there, of a heart attack, in 1975.