Benton Biography

- The Murals - Preliminary Studies
- Benton Biography - Benton Essay

The painter, writer, and musician Thomas Hart Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri, the son of a famous Missouri political family.

From an early age Benton showed remarkable skill as an artist, a talent his mother encouraged but which his father deplored, since he wished his son to focus on politics or law. Nevertheless Benton persuaded his father to send him to art school in Chicago, followed by further study in Paris and New York.

Benton soon tired of academic routines and drifted toward various modern styles, in part through the encouragement of the modernist American painter, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, who became a close friend.

Until the early 1920s, Benton was generally viewed as a modernist and ran through the gamut of modern approaches, such as CÈzannism, Synchromism, and Constructivism. The turning point in Benton's career came in 1924, when he returned to Missouri to visit his dying father, whom he had not seen in years. The talks he had with his father and with his father's old political cronies filled the artist with a desire to reconnect with the world of his childhood.

In 1930 Benton produced an enormous mural program, America Today, which received a great deal of attention. It was followed in 1932 by the five-part series, Arts of Life in America, the subject of this educational component of the museum's website.

In 1934 Benton's fame was clinched when he was featured on the cover of Time magazine--an honor never before awarded to an artist. The article in Time linked Benton with two other Midwestern artists, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood. From that point on, Benton was best known to the public as the leader of the "Regionalist Movement" in American art, which opposed European modernism and focused on scenes of the American heartland.

In 1935 Benton left New York, where he had lived for more than twenty years, and resettled in Kansas City, Missouri, assuming a teaching position at the Kansas City Art Institute.

In 1941 he was fired from the Institute for making tactless remarks about homosexuals in the Kansas City art world. He remained popular nevertheless until the late 1940s, when his work came under attack by European-trained art historians, and abstraction began to capture the attention of leading art critics. Ironically, the most charismatic figure in the new Abstract Expressionist movement was Benton's former pupil Jackson Pollock.

In addition to his work as a painter, Benton was a distinguished writer whose autobiography, An Artist in America (1937), became a bestseller. Also a gifted musician, he collected folk tunes, played the harmonica on a professional level, produced a record for Decca, and invented a new form of musical notation for the harmonica that is still used by music publishers.

Benton died in his studio on January 6, 1975, while completing a mural intended for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee.