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Documentary Review - Ken Burns' America: Thomas Hart Benton (1988)

By Edited May 4, 2016 0 0

Jason Robards is the narrator of this story of artist Thomas Hart Benton, but his tale is interspersed often by the words of colleagues, family and friends of Benton who are able to give keen insight into his character.

Thomas Hart Benton was born in 1889 in rural Neosho, Missouri. His father, Colonel Maecenas Benton, was elected to Congress four times, which required the family to move back and forth between Neosho and Washington, D.C. Benton’s father wanted him to become a lawyer and a politician, but Thomas was more interested in the intricacies of art. His mother, Elizabeth, encouraged him in this. She was 19 years younger than the Colonel, and the two were of extremely different temperaments. Benton’s sister, Mildred Small, is featured quite often in the documentary, and naturally knows the artist very well.


Cut the Line

                                                                                  Cut the Line

When Thomas was 17 years old, he got a job as a cartoonist at a small newspaper in Joplin. It gave him an outlet for his creativity as it was the first time that he was allowed to pursue his artistic interests. The Colonel insisted after a time that he be sent to a military academy where he failed miserably. With the blessings of his mother, Benton enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago in 1907 and later transferred to the Academie Julian in Paris where he met Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist. Rivera’s use of vivid color and his portrayal of social reality had a powerful influence in forming Benton’s style in his formative years. When his mother learned that her son had taken a mistress, she called him back home. She continued to support him financially until he married.

Benton’s father acquiesced to send him to New York where he continued his painting and made the acquaintance of photographer Albert Stieglitz. Benton taught classes at night where he met his future wife, Rita Piacenza, an Italian immigrant, who was one of his students. Benton married Rita when he was 33 years old, and they had two children, Thomas and Jessie. Rita was his staunch supporter throughout their 53-year marriage.

Amidst the New York art scene during the 1920s, Benton began to gain acclaim for his works that addressed the social realities of the city. His paintings were different from anything that had ever been seen before. He used the vivid colors that he took from Diego Rivera and combined them with cubism to form a natural, representational style which captured the American culture. He strove to appeal to the normal American people rather than the esoteric art connoisseurs and aesthetes. The style was known as Regionalism, and was begun by a trio consisting of Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry. Artists who aimed to establish a connection with the laboring classes of America embraced this movement. Even though Benton considered himself a Regionalist, he roamed the American countryside, sketching for months at a time, with the encouragement of his wife, Rita. Rita took responsibility for the business end of her husband’s career, selling his paintings and keeping meticulous records, which did not interest the artist.


Self-Portrait with Rita

                                                                   Self-Portrait with Rita

 After the success of his sketches while living in New York, Benton started his first series of murals, entitled “The American Historical Epic” which was the beginning of his evolution into Regionalism. He is probably most famous for his murals, other examples of which include “The Social History of the State of Missouri” and “The Cultural & Industrial Progress of Indiana.” His commission for the Truman Library mural led to his developing a friendship with the former U.S. President that lasted for the rest of their lives. They discovered that they both had a deep interest and knowledge of American history.

His wife Rita was responsible for getting him a commission in 1929 to do nine paintings, which we now know as “America Today,” which depicts a sweeping panorama of American life throughout the 1920’s. “America Today” ranks among Benton’s most renowned works and was one of the most remarkable accomplishments in American art during that period. The murals have been donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and will debut there in 2015.

The commission Benton received from the Missouri State Capital in Jefferson City in 1935, which he called “The Social History of the State of Missouri” was the catalyst that brought Benton and Rita back to the state where he was born. He was also given the job as head of the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute. Rita told him she would be happy to go back to Kansas City as long as his mother did not come. Controversy arose over his portrayal of the state's history; he included the subjects of slavery, the Missouri outlaw Jesse James, and the political boss Tom Pendergast. The Indiana Murals also stirred controversy; critics attacked his work for showing Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members in full regalia.


Chilmark Landscape

                                                                      Chilmark Landscape

 Benton always tried to tell stories with his murals. They are truly unique social commentaries for the time in which he lived and worked. The artist preferred huge murals and audacious paintings that reflected raw American life, some of it historical, mostly of ordinary folk caught in the throes of hard work. His pastoral views and distinct style of figure sketching represented a step away from the European aesthetic of the early 20th century, and emphasized realism over abstraction.

Benton’s most controversial subject was the nude “Persephone” which cost Benton his job at the Kansas City Art Institute. He wanted the painting to be hung in saloons rather than a museum. For a time, it was shown in Billy Roses’ nightclub, The Diamond Horseshoe, in New York City.

Benton’s best-known student was Jackson Pollack, who became like a son to him, and served as a model for his teacher’s mural, “America Today.” At one point, Jackson claimed he learned nothing from Benton, who countered with the remark that Jackson learned how to drink a bottle of whiskey a day. Pollock founded the Abstract Expressionist movement, which was in complete opposition to Benton’s work, and which Benton despised.


Thomas Hart Benton

                                                                     Thomas Hart Benton

In 1937, Benton published his autobiography, “An Artist in America,” which was critically acclaimed. It is not often that a painter also has a gift for writing, but Benton did.

On the day of his death on January 19, 1975, Thomas Hart Benton had just finished working on a mural for the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. It was entitled “The Sources of Country Music.” After having his dinner, he returned to his studio to sign the mural when he died of a heart attack. The mural remains unsigned and resides in Nashville. Rita Benton died two months after her husband passed away. Their daughter Jessie commented in the film that Rita could not live without him.

Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original
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Self-portrait with Rita by Thomas Hart Benton


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