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Capturing the story in epic cinema style

American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood is the first major traveling exhibit of Benton’s work in more than 25 years.

Having worked for a time as a set painter on silent films, the movie industry heavily influenced Benton’s technique from early in his career. His style combines old European mastery with Hollywood cinematography to capture larger-than-life narratives with the illusion of three-dimensional space and a sense of motion and projected light. When crafting his paintings, Benton even adopted several movie-making techniques, including the use of clay models to study shadows, and the use of storyboards to plan his murals.

In addition to his use of cinematic styling, Benton also shared an interest in many of the film industry’s favorite themes. War, the frontier, domestic turmoil, and pursuit of the American dream all found their way beneath his brush.

In 1937, Life Magazine commissioned Benton to represent the still burgeoning Hollywood, in which he set out to capture the behind-the-scene stories of the movie industry’s golden age. In typical Benton fashion, he used this project to lay bare the realities of Tinseltown’s establishment and culture—good and bad alike. His hundreds of sketches and some 40 resulting ink-and-wash drawings that Benton referred to as “notes,” focused on everything from bustling set design, eager casting lines, and meticulous film editors—down to the intrusiveness of paparazzi, the backroom dealings of jaded executives, and the prevalent exploitation of Hollywood starlets.

In 1939, Benton again crossed paths with Hollywood when 20th Century Fox commissioned him to create promotional materials for the film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. Benton would continue this relationship with Hollywood promotion with projects like The Kentuckian.