- Historic Sites
An Artist In America
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
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?
Had we remained in the little town of Neosho, I don’t know whether I would have had the early training that made it possible for me, at seventeen, to take up a professional job as an artist. But in Washington, both in the grade schools and in high school, my drawing was encouraged. I also spent a lot of time imitating a Washington cartoonist named Berryman. His style of crosshatching fascinated me, and when my father would take me up to the House, I’d sit there for hours sketching the congressmen, especially Unclejoe Cannon, the famous Speaker. I ’ll bet I drew him a hundred times.
It sounds as if you enjoyed your years in Washington.
You live in a city like Washington, even as a boy of fourteen or so, and you learn more about life than any school has to teach you. We lived a few doors from the Chinese embassy, and that was a fascinating damned place to hang around. And as a congressman’s son I had access to the shelves of the Library of Congress, and there I ran into Burton’s translation of the tales of the Arabian Nights , and for a kid, that was highly seductive stuff, let me tell you. I still read it, twenty-four volumes, footnotes and all, and when I get to the end, I start again because I Ve forgotten the language of the first part. I Ve done that for years and years.
At first drawing was just a hobby with you?
Until I was seventeen, yes. That was when I broke up my father’s plan to make a lawyer out of me, and the break was accidental. I was working up in Joplin with my cousin’s surveying outfit, and one Saturday night I wandered into the town’s main saloon, the House of Lords, to have a beer. Well, over the bar was a huge painting of a masked nude, which, as you can imagine, I got to studying pretty intently. The next thing I knew, a bunch of miners and roughnecks started kidding me with a barrage of obscene suggestions. I was so embarrassed that, in desperation, I started insisting that the reason I was looking at the picture was that I was a professional artist. Well, one of those hecklers happened to know that the local paper needed an artist, and he decided to call my bluff, so the first thing I knew we were on our way over to the offices of the Joplin American . As a test the editor had me go make a sketch of a local druggist, and I got the job at fourteen dollars a week. Once I got that job, I didn’t want to go back to monkeying with the law. Besides, there weren’t any law clerks in that part of the country making fourteen dollars a week, and my father knew that, and he knew I knew it, too. He gave in finally, and sent me to art school in Chicago, but he was very much disappointed.
H ow old were you when you moved on to study in Paris?
That was in 1909, and I was just nineteen. It was exciting and very highly stimulating for a young man, perhaps too stimulating for someone so young. The Paris of my time was really the beginning of all these colossal nervous changes in the art world. What was good one year, two years later you were doubtful about. Of course, today it’s next week you’re doubtful about it.
Paris left you confused as an artist?
There was too much ferment, too many directions all competing for the attention of the artist. And it was also a very lonely time for me. You see, I was too young for the café crowd. As I look back on it I don’t think it’s good psychologically for a young man to be that alone all the time, or alone with some damned woman to dominate you, which generally comes up, you know, when you’re that alone.
You once described Paris as the “usual story”a mistress, a studio, some work, and lots of talk.
I haven’t written too much about those days because, well, so many of the people involved, or their children, are still around. But it’s true, a mistress was generally accepted practice, and when you left, you left her what money you had, what furniture you had, and she hunted around for another artist. Most of those girls, I guess you could say, were very effective as “caretakers of the young.”
What finally made you leave Paris and return to this country?
Well, one day my mother and sister arrived unexpectedly to visit me, although I don’t particularly want to elaborate on that. Naturally, when a young fellow gets set up with a life of his own, he doesn’t want the interference of his family. I ran around making new arrangements as fast as I could, but of course they weren’t enough to disguise the situation.
What was your mother’s reaction?
It was the natural reaction of any mother who finds her son with a new woman dominating the situation.
Was that what prompted your parents to discontinue supporting your art study abroad?
I’ll tell you the truth about that. When I was a little boy, one of my uncles bequeathed me $3,500 for my education, which was a sizable sum in those days. And frankly, that did the business, all through my study in Chicago and my three years in Paris. Now you couldn’t do that today. My daughter, Jessie, cost more than that per year in Radcliffe.
In your various writings about this period, you seem to show a decided aversion to formal art training.
That’s true. And I ’ll tell you, since you’ve caught that by implication, that even in the modern art formulas I had the same distrust, and that’s why I never attached myself for very long to any of the modern movements, although I experimented with a good many of them.
Do you think your Populist background has anything to do with that distrust?
Yes. There has always been a slight resentment in me for any institutionalized forms of art, whether they are radical or conservative.
But do you see any direct parallels between political Populism and the form and content of your art?
People have seen such a connection, not just in the very strong strain of anti-intellectualism, but, well, it’s almost anticapitalism or antisociety as it was instituted at the time of the rise of Populism. Populism was a revolt of the farmers against the control of the market, against the rise of the promoter and the entrepreneur over the producer. This was something like the way I Ve felt toward the whole art establishment, yes, be it radical or conservative. I never got along with either of them. I made some effort, especially toward the modernists. But my art after 1920, and certainly after 1925, turned increasingly back toward the subject matter of my youth. Just the same, you want to understand here, my point of view has been exaggerated. I have never been totally negative about modern art, although I must say that back in my early days in Paris, even before the rise of cubism, it was a common belief among critics and even many artists, like my friend Leo Stein, that the disintegration of art would eventually lead, as it has, to an empty square of canvas.
Like the painting of Mark Rothko?
And many others before him. He was the one that became well-known for it.
During your early, developmental years in New York, how did you support yourself?
One of the ways I managed it came about through a friend, Rex Ingram, who was a director in the film industry’s early days in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He got me involved in 1914 as a set designer and general handyman, at seven and a half dollars a day. I worked for, I believe it was Pathé at first, and later with Fox. I had five years’experience with it, off and on. It was all very informal in those days, and the pictures were just sort of made up as they went along. I recall how the workmen, the designer, the head scene-painter, and myself would have dinner at Liichow’s to plan what we were going to do the next day. Then I would go over to the New York Public Library and look up what I could on the background of whatever the story called for. Then I would make sketches and go back to the film studio, where I would paint—everything was in black and white, of course—the backdrops, which were quite illusionary.
Did you ever work with any of the big stars of that period, like Valentmo?
I met him, I didn’t know him. I worked, now that I think of it, on the early planning of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse , and the cape that Valentino wore in that movie and the cane that he carried were mine. I had brought them back from Paris.
Did you ever do any more work for the motion-picture industry?
You mean on films? Yes. Walt Disney brought me out to Hollywood in 1946 to work on a picture that would have been sort of an American operetta about the life of Davy Crockett. Well, Disney had just put up a huge modern studio and was tremendously overextended financially, and his operations were actually under the control of a big New York City bank. And immediately the bankers started meddling with the story line. They knew that a large percentage of Disney’s profits came from showing his films in Latin America, and so they didn’t think it would be good business to have Crockett killed at the Alamo by Mexicans. So I suggested that we have Davy die in Congress from listening to all the oratory. They didn’t like that, of course. They wanted him to just fade gloriously up in the sky or something. Well, hell, I wasn’t going to have any part ofthat, so I sold my interest in the project to Disney for three thousand dollars and went home. I wish I hadn’t signed away my interest. Years later Walt put Crockett on television and made a fortune.
During the period before World War i you were part of the group that frequented the studio of Alfred Stieglitz and congregated at the old Lincoln Square Arcade at Sixty-fifth and Broadway. Wasn’t it in the Arcade that you were once stabbed by a girl friend?
Uh-huh. … Well, you see, fractions occur among the young, and I guess I made this girl mad, I don’t know over what. Actually, she surprised me. She’d have never gotten close enough to cut me if I had thought she was mad. The fact is that creative people attract women, for some goddamned reason. Wherever you find a bunch of artists, there’s always a bunch of women. I’m tempted to say that the female in our society has not been generally so economically conditioned as the male, and I believe that women are simply attracted to the sort of basic human things that an artist must deal with. But remember, these are special women, all of whom are themselves engaged in some artistic line.
I suppose one of the most significant things that occurred during this period of your life was the 1913 Armory Show in New York?
I missed it. My mother had taken sick, and my father thought I should come home to Missouri, so I didn’t see the show. But I soon saw what its effects were, and I participated myself in the next modern show.
That would be the 1916 Forum Show staged by the synchromists?
Yeah. You see, the bigger part of the critical response to the 1913 show was adverse, although the younger critics, they swallowed it whole. I know in the past I’ve said that show might have been detrimental to the growth of American art, but today I think it was a good idea that these new idioms were injected into the American scene, because we are, after all, an outlying part of European civilization, and it was therefore almost unavoidable that these new idioms should come in. As far as the larger question of how important the modernist movement really is, well, it will take us another fifty or sixty years to judge that.
When this country went to war in 1917, you enlisted in the Navy. Ton once explained that by saying you didn’t want “to interfere with the progress of any German bullets. ”
I used political influence to get into the Navy. The U.S. Postmaster General was Governor Dockery of Missouri, a close friend of my father’s, and the governor was in sympathy with the German element in Missouri who didn’t want to be in the war, too. It was that simple. You see, we all believed that it was simply a war between the big capitalist nations for control of the world’s resources. And largely that’s what it was.
W as your art affected by your Navy experience?
It certainly was. I worked a good part of the time as a draftsman, and that had a lot to do with my return to representational art. But what was equally important about this period was that I began reading American history again.
Then you consider your study of American history an important influence in your career?
Of course. That and having been introduced in Paris to the ideas set forth by Hippolyte Taine in his Philosophie de l’ Art . Taine would not accept the modernist argument that art had a separate existence from society, and neither do I. Well, at any rate, after I got out of the Navy, I set to work on a series of paintings about American history, and I worked on that project from about 1920 to 1926. Originally, I planned to paint ten “chapters” of five paintings each, which would depict the history of the country from its settlement to the 1920’s, but I only finished the first two chapters. These were exhibited, as I completed them, at the annual shows of the Architectural League in New York, and through them I gradually became known as a muralist. And during the same period, I executed my first genre paintings of American life during summer visits here at Martha’s Vineyard.
Did your marriage to Rita Piacenza in 1922 change your career?
I think it did. It made me a damned sight more peaceful. As a matter of fact, since 1948 she’s handled practically all the business. She’s a very good salesman, and it has been through Rita that I have actually been able to keep up competition with the New York dealers so that they’ll pay my prices. And she was very important in the beginning, too, in that she earned a good deal through her work in the fashion field. Then there was Dr. Alfred Raabe.
Who was he?
Raabe was a Ukrainian who immigrated to this country and started practicing medicine in the Bronx. He just had an interest in the arts, and by chance he ran into me, and we liked each other. He’d come around to my studio every so often and collect a batch of my paintings and sketches. He’d put frames on them—it was a hobby of his—and then he’d hang them in his patients’ bedrooms. He must have sold hundreds of them to his patients, at very low prices. But I want to say something about that. Never, even when I became well-known and my pictures started bringing good prices, never have those paintings come on the market. I consider that quite a tribute.
W hen did you make your first important sale?
It was in 1922 at an exhibition at the old Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia. The purchaser was an eccentric patent-medicine manufacturer and art collector named Albert Barnes, and having Barnes buy one of my paintings was a great help to my reputation. Later, I helped him with a book on the arts that he wanted to write, but we didn’t agree very long.
Did Barnes ever send you one of his celebrated letters?
Oh, hell yes. Everybody got one. You know, Barnes was also an amateur psychologist, and he could really be devastating. Briefly, what he said was that my cockiness with regard to the arts derived from the fact that I was only a runt anyhow, and runts like me are always combative. He was a vicious bastard, but he did love art.
Is there any particular moment or period m your life thai you would consider a crucial turning point?
Well, if there was one, it was probably in 1924. My father had a cancer and was dying, and I went out to Springfield, Missouri, to sort of take care of him. While I was there I began to meet people I’d known, and in interim moments I went with my brother down in the Ozarks to see if that life I knew in my youth still existed. I guess that got me started walking around the rural parts of the South and West, sketching the people and joining in their revival meetings and helping them drink their moonshine. Some of my walking tours over the next decade, like the one I made through the Smokies, were prolonged, often lasting two or three months. Those areas were still full of adventure in those days, and some of it, like the time the coal-mine police confiscated my sketchbooks and chased me clear into the next county, got a little hair-raising. But I got along fine with the common folk, who weren’t as suspicious of outsiders then as they are now. I kept extensive notes on my adventures, and in 1934 I put it all down in a sort of autobiography called An Artist in America .
For a painter, you’ve certainly published a lot.
I suppose I enjoy writing, although at times it can be very annoying, and, as you know, the critics don’t like artists to be articulate.
Why is that?
The critics, quite frankly, prefer that artists don’t speak for themselves. They prefer a guy like Jackson Pollock, who was completely inarticulate. That way the critics have perfect freedom to say anything they like.
You don’t have a very high opinion of art critics, do you?
Well, there are different kinds of critics. I know certain scholars who might be called critics, and these men, like Ruskin and Taine, can be of immense value to you. You see, you may not believe in Plato’s ideas of art, but they are ideas, and very important. But you don’t ever get any ideas from the average critic, just fancy writing and a lot of trivial, personal observations.
In your book, the people you met on your walking tours all seem so, well, unaffected. Is it possible your view might have been somewhat romanticized?
Possibly. Certainly after 1926 these travels were an attempt to recapture the sectional culture of my youth. And possibly any of my art that pictured that would have the character of a romance. Perhaps I had a romantic view of it. That isn’t a bad word at all, in my estimation.
Do you think most parts of America are losing their sectional flavor today?
No question about it. The subject matter that I devoted my art to has practically disappeared. Not wholly, because I know areas where I could go out and live on a farm and refind it. But generally speaking, it’s a dying culture. It’s gone. And one thing about it, the town near that farm today will be just like any other town. I have really sort of lost my subject matter.
How did your assignment to do the New School mural come about?
Well, I can tell you about that. It was in 1928,1 think, that Alma Reed opened the Delphic gallery in New York, largely to promote the work of the Mexican muralist José Clémente Orozco. I don’t know how far I should go with that, because the relations between Alma and Orozco, well, they were not just dealer and artist at all. At any rate, Clémente had seen my historical murals and liked them, and I was the only American artist he wanted in the gallery with him. So I agreed. The main problem was to find wall space for our murals, and it was Alma’s contention that we’d have to work cheaply at first to get started.
Did you agree with her?
No. But as it turned out, she was right. What happened was that when she heard about the construction of the New School, she went and negotiated a mural for Orozco and not me. Now, when this got out, there were a number of people, like Lewis Mumford and particularly Ralph Pierson, who was quite well-known in New York art circles, who were furious. Pierson himself went to Alvin Johnson, the director of the New School, and said it was an outrage that someone like me, who had worked so hard to develop a new American mural style, was to be excluded from the project. So Dr. Johnson promised me a wall to paint if I would work on the same terms as Orozco had.
What terms were those?
I worked for nothing. The New School paid the paint expenses.
Did this lead to a break with Alma Reed and the Delphic gallery?
Well, yeah. Not an open break, but it wasn’t pleasant anymore, and I quit her shortly after.
Did Orozco have any specific influence on you at this time?
None, except that I liked his work, and he liked mine, although I don’t think he did after my painting began to be highly localized. You see, Orozco, unlike Diego Rivera, always dealt in what are called universal symbols. Clemente’s original works, like mine, were very much influenced by Michelangelo. That’s probably why he liked my early murals.
In your murals, how do you decide which elements you want to include?
You mean the subject matter? Well, there are two different ways. In the historical murals the images are all based upon verbal accounts, of course. In the New School mural I had by then done so much sketching in the field that I was ready and anxious for an opportunity to put some of this new stuff into a form. I had already done one modern thing, called the Bootleggers , and I was more and more fascinated with modern subjects. So when the New School thing came up, Alvin Johnson and I decided to concentrate on contemporary America, and I had the material in my travel sketchbooks, all of it. It was simply a question of organizing it.
I know that Rita and your infant son, T.P., both posed for the New School mural, but !also noticed that in one corner panel you yourself are pictured talking to Dr. Johnson.
Yeah. We are both drinking whiskey, showing that we were what they called scofflaws during Prohibition. I recall that Johnson was a bit leery at first about the whiskey, but he was a man with a good sense of humor. As far as the artist putting himself in his painting, that’s not new. Giotto did it, Signorelli did it, lots of painters did it.
W hen the New School mural was unveiled in 1931, it raised a storm of protest from both radical and conservative art circles. Had you anticipated this kind of reaction?
Hell, no. I thought I had made something that was going to please everybody .
The conservatives didn’t like your use of contemporary subject matter, whereas the radicals were furious that there was no ideological protest in your mural. Were you under any kind of pressure to inject a Marxist viewpoint?
Oh, yes. Quite a bit—from my associates at the time and through my connection with certain Marxist groups like the People’s Art Guild and the Barnhouse group here on Martha’s Vineyard. I was, at one time, a quite convinced Marxist, but I never joined any of the societies or parties that were propagating those ideas. In fact, by 19281 had completely lost faith in the efficacy of Marxism in the United States.
You turned from Marxism in 1928? That was well before it became so fashionable for artists and writers. Was this because of your extensive family background m politics?
None of them had my kind of background. They were innocents. I had known enough politics to know that while Marxist theory was itself logical and quite convincing, there was always the political business, the question of power. And I was proved right later, with the rise of Stalin. Although you may have a theoretical good in mind, the means that are used to attain it have a hell of an effect on it.
A re you glad now that you didn’t get more deeply involved in the Marxist movement?
I got enough involved as it was, so that I was under surveillance for a while. When Bob Minor was active in the Communist Party, under the Palmer regime, when Attorney General Palmer was pursuing everybody in New York, I let Minor have our apartment for a meeting of the Communist Party. And of course that was found out and got in the hands of people in Missouri and used to lambaste me with there.
How would you describe yourself today politically?
I’m a very conservative man, always have been. I’ve tied myself to the traditions of the Western world in which I was raised, and have tried to perform within them. I Ve no idea to revolutionize anything. I know things are going to be revolutionized without me. It may well be that we’ve come to the end of the capitalist world, which has produced more freedom for the individual than any other system in history, but maybe too damned much. I don’t know. But it does seem evident to me that we’re not going to have nineteenth-century capitalism last through the twentieth, although if you say that, they call you a Commie, which is absurd.
You seem to have been called just about everything in your career, from opportunistic to anti-Semitic.
That anti-Semitism business was started by some of the young Jewish idealists who controlled the John Reed Club of New York. They used that charge to beat me with because I wouldn’t put a lot of Marxist propaganda in my murals, but that accusation died out with the fracas. The other names I was called didn’t bother me especially, although I did object to being called an opportunist. Still do.
How could you afford to paint the New School mural for nothing, by the way?
I got five hundred dollars for teaching that winter at the New School, and the Whitney Museum bought all the preliminary sketches. And then the Whitney considered buying a series of big sketches I had made for the rotunda of the New York Public Library, which had been rejected. But Mrs. Juliana Force, the director of the Whitney, decided that it would be better if I made a new mural for the museum’s library, and so they advanced me four thousand dollars. But when I finished the mural, they only paid one thousand dollars more, and I was so disappointed I got drunk at the opening and gave the thousand back. That was the last time I ever worked without a contract, and that was the beginning of the hard feelings between me and the Whitney.
Is it true that when the Whitney moved in 1956 to its new quarters, the museum actually offered to give y ou back the mural?
I was shocked when they repudiated it. I gave it to the museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
The Whitney mural, I understand, had already aroused a lot of criticism, including a very hostile round-robin letter from your coinstructors at the Art Students League.
I don’t know what went on in the minds of those fellows to make them do that. Frankly, I do not know what occasioned the general animosities, either.
Do you think they were envious of you?
You mean at the attention I was getting? I can’t see that, since nearly all of it was adverse. And it couldn’t have been envy of my talent, because all of them were better artists than I was, and told me so. It’s curious, though. Even my friend E. E. Cummings, who was an amateur painter, got quite nasty and satirical toward me. He addressed me always as “the great American painter,” and I soon got tired ofthat and quit seeing him. I guess I can understand a little bit, because in those murals I broke with those aesthetic groups who were inspired largely by what was going on in Paris, and with the Marxists, the social realists who believed that art should be put at the service of the proletarian revolution. I fitted with neither of them, and things got quite violent. But then, everything was violent in the 1930’s.
Your friend Thomas Craven once wrote that because of the “rawhide individualism ” of your painting, you do not fit into any of the ready-made categories of modem art.
Maybe I don’t. But I’m tied in many ways. I’ve been influenced all my life by this, that, and the other school. And I can’t say that there is anything that I have invented in any of my art. All I Ve discovered was what was within reach of anybody in America. “Red” [Sinclair] Lewis, [William] Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, Tennessee Williams—they all discovered the same thing I did.
Are those your favorite authors?
Mark Twain, of course. Those were the first stories I ever read, that and the Arabian Nights , and I still read both.
Y ou don’t seem to have ever gone out of your way to avoid controversy, any more than y our famous great-uncle did. Is this a Benton family trait?
Well, that will be your comparison. I’m not imitating him or trying to. I’m going to tell you about this, though. Let’s get it clean. I’m not just looking to assert myself in my art. I’m not hunting my own soul. I was really trying to present America, and I thought I had a fairly objective view of it. Of course, as you pointed out, there was romance in it, but it was not the kind of romance that was always acceptable everywhere.
What was your next mural project after the Whitney?
I contracted to paint the Indiana state mural for the exposition in Chicago in June, 1933.
Was that the mural that caused such a storm because you included the Ku Klux Klan in it?
Yeah. Now there was a case. … You asked me earlier whether being named Thomas Hart Benton had affected my career. … My name was a great assistance in the case of the Indiana mural. Indiana was the first very large commission I got. And my entrée into the political area, which was necessary to confirm the contract, was definitely made possible by my name, because the Democratic politicos who controlled the state regarded me as a brother and not just a damned New York artist. And the same was true a few years later in Missouri, where I was able to override any controversies, control my contract, subject matter, and everything else, very largely because of my name.
Let’s talk about the Missouri State House mural, which you finished in 1936. How would you rate it among all your murals?
If I have any right to make judgments, I would say that the Missouri mural was my best work. I was thoroughly matured. I had had the Indiana experience, and I knew what to do. Plus, I knew what kind of contract to demand.
What kind of contract was that?
It was put through the Missouri legislature by Senator Edward Barbour, a friend of my brother’s, and mine, too. Barbour managed somehow, I don’t know how, to get the bill through, authorizing the mural and sixteen thousand dollars to pay for it, without entangling me in any way with the then dominant [Thomas] Pendergast machine. But there was a clause in it that I must work under state art supervision. Well, I had watched all the problems that the politicians had caused in the art projects of the WPA, and so I telegraphed from New York and told them that I wouldn’t sign the contract unless they removed that clause. That was demanding a good deal, but they did it. And the only reason they did it was because all those goddamned state politicians had a great admiration for my father, and respected the Benton family name.
How do you feel about the criticism over your depiction of Boss Pendergast and the saga of Frankie and Johnny in the Missouri mural?
I believe that the myths of a country picture it almost, well, practically better than its damned politics. As far as Pendergast was concerned, I told him that this was to be a mural of contemporary Missouri, and what the hell, it can’t be complete without you, and he agreed that that was true. So he posed for me in his Kansas City office. He wanted to be in it or he wouldn’t have posed. There wasn’t any trouble about it at all.
The trouble came afterward?
Later on, after Pendergast got to the penitentiary, some wag went up and painted his prison number on his back in the mural, and somebody told Harry Truman that I had done that. And that caused considerable coldness between Truman and me for years, until he actually got to know me and realized that I wouldn’t have done such a thing. I remember when I first met him in the White House, he said to me then, “Are you still making those controversial pictures?” And I think I replied, “I would if I could get some more of them to do. ”
What did you mean afterward when you said you were astounded by the “conventional nature” of the criticism that was levelled at the Missouri mural?
I did? I don’t remember saying that. You see, all the time I was painting, I left that room wide open, and all the people of the state who had business in Jefferson City could come in and watch. About the only adverse comments I heard the whole time would be an occasional complaint from some farmer about some detail, and sometimes they were right, and I would change it. Now the general public in Missouri liked that mural and still do. It was only a small cultivated public in St. Louis and Kansas City that raised that fracas. Supposedly cultivated. Stupid as hell. And certain politicians, like Matt Murray, the state engineer, who said publicly, “I wouldn’t hang a Benton on my s——house wall.” So it wasn’t the public that protested. It was a just a bunch of machine politicians and the polite element of society, mostly Republicans.
Your contract in 1935 to paint the Missouri mural coincided with your moving to Kansas City to join the faculty of the art institute there. Since you had been turned down by the institute in 1912, was this sort of a triumphant homecoming?
No. I’ve never told the real reason. I was up in Kansas City on a Christmas buying trip in 1Q12, and I ran into a fellow I’d known back in Chicago. He had been a teacher in Chicago when I was a student there. Well, he said that the art institute in Kansas City needed a man who had just returned from Paris—only it turned out that they were all homosexuals in the place, and I didn’t get along.
This was in Kansas City in 1912?
At that time Kansas City was a vaudeville and carnival exchange center, and it was a place where the chorus boys would be stranded for weeks at a time. And somehow or other, Kansas City had become a quite developed homosexual center in 1Q12, and it had reached into the art institute. Now listen, I’d been through Paris, and I’d never seen anything like that. It shocked the hell out of me. They had a party for me, and they all came in women’s underwear and all that stuff. This was something I was absolutely innocent about, and I couldn’t stay there.
Before you left New York in /535, didn’t you sound off about the “precious fairies” who dominated the art world and who, you complained, were inhibiting the development of a truly American art form?
I said that, and for a while I was persona non grata in every art museum in the country because of that statement. I’m trying to just soft-pedal that now, because they’ve sort of come around to me, in spite ofthat. They have to, in a way. But what I said then is, if anything, even stronger today. These homosexuals are quite influential in this particular game I’m in. In fact, they control it. You get a reputation as an artist with their permission.
Do you think it’s a question of temperament, of injecting effeminate attitudes toward art ?
It’s not necessarily effeminate, it’s precious. It’s the Oscar Wilde attitude toward art that they bring. And that’s something I don’t like. You see, they are nearly all highly in favor of the more abstract movements, where they can seem to belong to an elite group. As a matter of fact, the success of the various abstract movements in the United States has largely depended upon the promotion of these homosexuals. Let me put it this way. In every field there’s always some son of a bitch who “knows” what nobody else knows, and he don’t know it, but he rests his fame on it. You have the same thing in the art world. If you get something that no one else can understand and you understand it or can convince others that you understand it, that puts you in a superior position.
A nd you still feel that this “precious” influence hurts American art?
I’m quite sure it does. You see, when only women and homosexuals are interested in the arts, it shows that the arts don’t have much of a place in the culture. Their influence has the effect of withdrawing art from its public function. They want it to be their own precious domain.
That’s really the essence of your central premise, isn’t it, that art must have a social function?
Some kind. It’s healthy. It’s always had through history, and when it doesn’t have now, you feel that there is degeneration. Maybe its social function is played out. Maybe this is the end. I don’t know. There seems to be more public attention to art now in this country than ever before, but it still doesn’t seem to perform any function or communicate much. Today we do have the cowboy-andIndian art in the West, which has attracted a great following, and the advertising arts. But advertising degrades art, and the western stuff is so obviously a romantic resuscitation that it isn’t contemporary at all. This western art never gives you the sense of any kind of change. There are no more Indians riding around on lonely peaks anymore, and if there are, they’ve got a can of beer in their hand instead of a spear.
Didn’t you try your hand at advertising art in the late 1930’s?
At that time I was very optimistic about a possible marriage between commerce and art, but I found out after a few months that it was impossible. The advertising people were too damned sensitive about the subject matter, although they continued to use some of the paintings I made for the American Tobacco Company for quite a while. Lewenthal got me into that.
Reeves Lewenthal, was he the man who started the Associated American Artists?
Yeah. Lewenthal was a regular entrepreneur, with quite a stable of artists, including myself and Wood and Curry. Regionalism was already pretty strong when he took us on, but there is no question that he did a very effective job of popularizing the Americanist artists, including some of the boys from the John Reed Club who had graduated from their former hatred of the regionalist movement. And Lewenthal brought money in, especially with his five-dollar lithographs, which sold in the thousands.
When did you make your famous caustic remark about preferring to hang your paintings in saloons and whorehouses, where normal people could see them?
It was in 1939, when Lewenthal opened his Fifth Avenue gallery, and I exhibited two nude studies, Susanna and the Elders and Persephone , which caused some controversy, although I’m not really sure why. I did the same thing that’s been done through history, the same thing as Giorgione’s Fête Champêtre , in which the men have the costume of the day, although the women, of course, don’t have any costumes at all. Susanna was rather specifically done, with some pubic hair showing, and that resulted in a bit of a furor that seems absurd today. At any rate the reporters used to come to my openings, and we’d get drunk and get to talking about everything. Well, I made that remark about saloons and whorehouses, and the next day a fellow from the old New York Telegram came to me and asked me if I would stand by it. And I said, yeah. I wasn’t going to back down.
D idn’t the publication of that remark cost you your teaching job at the Kansas City Art Institute?
That was the reason they gave, but I was having a lot of trouble there with the trustees. They tried to get me to resign, but I made them fire me. And it was good for me, too. It was taking too much time that I needed for painting. At the time they thought they had me in an economic wringer, but they didn’t know I was doing pretty well.
What sort of trouble were you having with the trustees?
Well, the main thing was that the trustees had decided they wanted an accredited school, so they could give degrees, and they wanted me to grade the students. I wouldn’t do it. I wanted to run it as a regular oldfashioned art school and not as a goddamned adjunct to a college. I also would not engage in the school’s social activities. And politically, all the trustees were very strong conservative Republicans, more conservative than you can imagine, and everything that seemed to come up, well, we disagreed on. I was glad to get out.
The regionalist school of painting really fell out of favor with the coming of World War II, didn’t it?
Well, you must remember, the regionalist movement, not only in the United States but in Mexico and Germany and even in Italy, to name just a few, had actually dominated the scene for nearly twenty years. But it is true that the war … actually, both wars had the same effect of emptying art of content. That’s something a sociologist or psychologist ought to look into.
How did the public rejection of regionalism affect your colleagues Wood and Curry?
Much more deeply than I. They cared more. Having had fewer controversies than I had, Wood and Curry were probably more sensitive to the criticism of the movement and more easily hurt by it. And neither one of them being highly verbal, I’m sure they took verbal statements much more seriously than I would.
When you visited Grant Wood on his deathbed in 1942, were you shocked when he told you he intended to change his name and start all over again as a painter?
I didn’t take it very seriously. I considered it a state of his illness.
But he had lost confidence in his art?
Was the same thing true of Curry before his death in 1946?
It was. Of course, Curry was suffering from high blood pressure, and that in itself was a depressant. But he was always immensely subject to criticism. From the very beginning he used to cry over it. Great big buck, you know. Seems sort of odd. On the other hand, those periods of depression—the sense of rejection and the uselessness of your effort—I think every artist must have them at some time. I had a number of them, but I always got over them. And I’m sure Jack Pollock had it before he died. His last three years, you know, he didn’t do anything and was in a terribly depressed state.
Pollock was more than just your most famous student. For many years he was practically a member of your family. Did it upset you when he said that your chief value to him as a painter consisted of someone to react against?
Jack never said that to me. I think it was one of the many things that were put in his mouth by the critics. And there was really no occasion for Jack to say anything like that. He had made his own departure as an artist. I haven’t repudiated any of my influences. I admit them all. I don’t give a damn.
Doesn’t it seem ironic that the best-known student of a famous representational painter should acquire his reputation as an abstract expressionist?
It seems like a natural reaction to me. You talk about sons rejecting their fathers. Well, he was practically a son.
Pollock died in 1956. It was the following year that you were first approached about the proposed mural for the Truman Library in Independence. Would you tell me about your relations with the former President?
It was a late acquaintanceship, and there isn’t very much to say, except that I got along with him. I had no adventures with him, no arguments. I have enormous respect for him, of course. But as I told you, after that Pendergast thing with the Missouri mural, he was rather cold to me when I met him in Washington. In fact, Truman was not originally in favor of my doing his mural. I rather suspect that in the beginning he was a little afraid I was going to do something controversial on his library wall.
Did the President go over each detail of the mural with you?
No. We knew from the beginning what the subject matter was to be. The question always was whether Harry would be in the mural. The Washington crowd that raised the money, they wanted him in it. I knew this was going to be a problem, so I was going to treat him as a spectator, much in the way the old paintings used to include the donors, you know. But Harry refused to be in it, and I was very glad of it. I admired him for it, too. He was very cautious at first about giving me control of the subject matter, but he finally gave in, and he said time and again publicly that I did him a great favor. We got to be very great personal friends while I was doing that mural. The day I started painting it I even got him to climb up on the scaffold with me and paint the first strokes of the sky for the news cameras.
I n May, 1962, shortly after the Truman Library mural was unveiled, your hometown of Neosho held a special “homecoming” celebration for you.
President Truman did me the honor of attending that affair, and we all rode down to Neosho from Kansas City on the President’s private railroad car with Harry and his wife, Bess. And when we got there, there were flags and signs and a big cheering crowd, so I turned to the President and, because he was our greatest Missourian, I suggested that he go out first. But he said it was my day, and he pushed me out the door. That was so typical of the President.
That must have been a pretty exciting occasion.
Yeah, I ’ll tell you. I had a hard time taking that.