An Artist In America

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Thomas Hart Benton, one of the nation’s premier muralists, was born in Neosho, Missouri, on April 15, 1889, and was named for his famous great-uncle, who became a political legend during three decades of service as that state’s first U.S. senator. The elder Thomas Hart Bent1;1858) migrated out of common sense to the Missouri Territory in 1815 partly because of a notorious and bloody brawl in Tennessee with Andrew Jackson. [See “Now defend yourself’, you damned rascal!” AMERICAN HERITAGE , February, 1958.] In 1907 his namesake abandoned Missouri and the Benton family tradition of a career in law and politics. He enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, departing a year later for Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian until 1911. The years just before World War I he spent in New Tork City experimenting with the various postimpressiomst theories of art that emanated with bewildering rapidity from France. After a wartime stint in the Navy Benton returned to New York, where he worked as an instructor at the Art Students League and gradually acquired a reputation as a promising contemporary muralist. This led to his first important assignment, at the New School for Social Research (1931), followed by mural commissions from the Whitney Museum of American Art (1932), the Indiana exhibit at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago (1933), and the Missouri State House (1936) in Jefferson City. His painting invariably involved him in stormy controversy with radical and conservative critics alike, but his explicit style and use of nativist subject matter soon brought him recognition, along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, as a leader of the regionalst movement. In 1935 he joined the faculty of the Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, where he still maintains his home and studio. His autobiography, An Artist in America , was first published 1937 and has since gone through two. revisions and numerous printings. Still active at the easel, he retired from mural work in 1961 after completing his Truman Library project m Independence, but he returned to this medium last spring to help Joplm, Missouri, where he got his start as an artist, celebrate its centennial. Since igso Benton has summered on Martha’s Vineyard off Cape Cod with his wife, Rita, and their two children. There, at his three-room shingled cottage on a windswept bluff at Gay Head, he recently interrupted his construction of a stone sea wall to discuss his turbulent career.

Being named Thomas Hart Benton in Missouri must have been like being named Daniel Webster in Massachusetts.

Very likely ’tis. It was a family name, and I was the first male in my immediate family born in Missouri, and it was quite natural to name me after the first of my line to come to Missouri. There are two lines of Bentons, one Yankee and one southern. I’m southern.

Do you think your name may have impelled you to fame?

No, I would not believe that at all. I’ve never had any strong feeling that I have to emulate any ancestor. I wasn’t aware of the implications of the name at first, of course. I became aware of it quick enough, because that was drilled into me. I was also raised with a certain view of American history. From the time I was five years old I was got into the habit of reading and listening to it. That was all part of my father’s effort to make me a lawyer.

What did your father, Colonel M. E. Benton … incidentally, what did the M stand for?

Maecenas — M-A-E-C-E-N-A-S . He was the great Roman protector of the arts, which my father was not.

Your father was a lawyer, wasn’t he?

My father was a lawyer who rose to political power in Missouri after a fracas with President Grover Cleveland. He was then the U.S. attorney for the western district of Missouri, and Cleveland suspended him from office for what was called offensive partisanship. But his suspension raised such a stink that he was promptly put back in. He was attached to the Populist movement that was led in Missouri by Senator George Fisk, and my father rode that Populist vote into power.

And into Congress?

Yes, he served in the House from 1897 until 1905. I guess you could say that the core of our family life was politics. Many of my earliest memories are of the politicians who came to dinner at our house, men like Champ Clark and William Jennings Bryan, big men with huge cigars and larger appetites. And when my father went out campaigning, I went along. By the time I was ten, I knew all about the political rallies and camp meetings and backwoods hotels. It was a much different style than we have today. I’ll say one thing, though. It forced a man into much closer relations with his constituents than he need have today.

Did living in the nation’s capital as a boy have any effect on the direction of your life?