“(Thomas Hart Benton is) the best damn painter in America.”
—Harry S Truman
Thomas Hart Benton captured the attention of Missouri and the art world with his paintings depicting life in America.
He was on the forefront of what is now
known as the American Regionalism Movement in the late 1920s and 1930s, focusing his art on “real life” paintings of Americana. These magnificent panoramas of Missouri history still adorn the Missouri State Capitol. His paintings were more than just a symbol of life in the Midwest and South; they were also a rallying cry for the positive aspects of “America First” or Isolationism, which would steer the course of American history for years to come.
THE EARLY YEARS
Benton was born on April 15, 1889, in Neosho, Missouri, which lies in the Ozark Hills south of Joplin. His great-great uncle and namesake—Senator Thomas Hart Benton—served thirty years in the U.S. Senate. His father was a four-term congressman and U.S. district attorney. The family spent time in Washington, D.C., when his father was in office but returned to Neosho after he was defeated for reelection. Early on, the young Benton showed great promise as
an artist, but his father pushed for a career in law. But the young Benton’s fate was about to change after a local newspaper came calling.
RISE TO FAME
Thomas was working as a surveyor in 1906 when a random encounter in a barroom led to a job at the Joplin American newspaper. His job was to draw humorous portraits of city leaders and local citizens, which paid him about fourteen dollars a week. Even though the pay was low, the job was a perfect fit for the blossoming young artist.
During his late teens and twenties, he continued to pressure his father into sending him to art school, but his plan backfired when his father shipped him off to military school in Alton, Illinois. One year in military school was enough
for Benton, as he finally convinced his father to send him to the Art Institute of Chicago.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
His years at art schools in Chicago and Paris refined his abilities, but he truly came into his own as an artist during his travels in the early 1920s. He ventured into remote areas near his home in the Midwest and also in the South, where he
captured images of everyday people on canvas. It was a style he hadn’t studied much in art school, but he quickly mastered the techniques of painting landscapes and images he saw.
By the late 1920s he was already one of the top American Regionalist painters on the art scene. He used vivid colors that jumped off the canvas and painted almost cartoon-like images of people. Those characteristics defined his famous
Many of his famous works are still on display throughout the country. His panorama mural of Missouri history still graces the walls of the lounge for the House of Representatives in Jefferson City, where thousands of people pack the
chambers every year to get a look. His depictions of Western migration are also on display at the Truman Presidential Library in Independence. His 1947 mural, Achelous & Hercules, which was painted for Harzfeld’s Department Store in downtown Kansas City, has since been moved to the Smithsonian Institution.
Not only did Benton become popular with “common” folks of his day, but he also led a charge within the art world to rebel against the French dominance of artwork in the United States. Many contemporary artists are still feeling his
influence, and his leadership in the Regionalist Movement helped pave the way and open doors for other artists of his style to follow.
*Benton taught at the Art Student League in New York where his most famous student was Jackson Pollock.
*His nude painting, “Persephone,” often called Kansas City’s Mona Lisa, helped cost him his job at the Kansas City Art Institute.
*He lived in Kansas City from 1935 until his death in 1975. His home and art studio at 3616 Belleview is now a museum
open to the public.