A Hell of a Good Story: Thomas Hart Benton


Both readers Meredith T. and emily requested a post on the American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), of whom emily said, "He was a spitfire!" The agricultural harvest focus of his 1947 painting "Achelous and Hercules" is fitting for mid-October, so today we'll take a look at the spitfire himself and his work.

1. With a great-uncle, Thomas Hart Benton, who was one of the first two U.S. Senators from Missouri, and a father, Maecenas E. Benton, who was a colonel and a four-time Congressman, Thomas Hart Benton was expected to enter the law or political arena. Instead, he dropped out of school at age 15 but was then sent by his father to a military academy, from which he ran away to attend the Art Institute of Chicago.

2. Benton was hired to paint a mural, "Independence and the Opening of the West," for the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. The commission sparked a life-long friendship between the former president and the artist. Later, shortly before Truman's death, Benton painted a portrait of his friend that caused Truman to remark that Benton was "the best damned painter in America."

3. TIME magazine's first color cover, on December 24, 1934, featured Benton's self-portrait. The accompanying cover story, "The U.S. Scene," discussed current American art, including Benton's and that of fellow Midwesterners Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry.

4. Benton taught at the Art Students League in New York, where one of his students was Jackson Pollock, and at the Kansas City Art Institute. He was dismissed from the Art Institute, though, after he described the typical art museum as "a graveyard run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists and a swing in his gait." He also stated, "Do you want to know what's the matter with the art business in America? It's the third sex and the museums."

5. According to oft-told stories, Benton died of heart failure in his studio while he was reviewing his final mural, "The Sources of Country Music." As filmmaker Ken Burns later remarked, "If nothing else, Thomas Hart Benton is a hell of a good story."

A larger version of "Achelous and Hercules" is available here. Fans should check out the collection of Benton's Navy art; Benton's famous Indiana murals; Ken Burns' PBS special on Benton; this photo of Benton, his wife, and his son; and this teaching aid for Benton's "The Sources of Country Music." "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with artist suggestions or details of current exhibitions.