Thomas Hart Benton 1889-1975
Born in Neosho, Missouri to an influential political family, Thomas Hart Benton was groomed from an early age to continue his family’s legacy. At 16, his father sent him to the Western Military Academy with the intent of grooming him towards this end, but Benton was more inclined to pursue an interest of art. With the support of his mother, he enrolled in The School of The Art Institute of Chicago in 1907. This was soon followed by a stint at the Académe Julian in Paris, where he met with other North American artists such as Diego Rivera and Stanton Macdonald-Wright.
Moving back to the United States in 1912, and newly immersed in the latest modernist styles, Benton further developed his talent as a painter and illustrator working for the US Navy. This included a time working as a “camoufleur,” during which he documented the camouflage patterns of naval ships entering Norfolk harbor. It was also during this period that Benton began his fascination with moviemaking, designing and painting scenery for film sets and sound stages during the 1910s.
In the early 1920s, Benton moved to New York and declared himself an “enemy of modernism,” favoring naturalistic and representative work that focused on American Epics. Relatively unknown to this point, he captured national attention in 1932 when he won a commission to paint murals of Indiana life for the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. He focused his mural on everyday people and their activities—not all of it positive. Some of the more difficult and horrific episodes of the mural series ruffled more than a few feathers, and set the course for a controversial career in which he held fast to a desire to paint life as it was, and not simply as we might wish it to be.