The question of the most overrated American painter is a ticklish one and needs to be defined carefully. If our criterion is prices in the marketplace, I would nominate Childe Hassam. Hassam produced some marvelous paintings but also a great number of duds, and I’m always astonished by how much money the bad paintings fetch when they come up for auction.
I nominate Thomas Hart Benton, whose name cannot be spoken by most art historians without a sneer, or discussed without an abusive comment placed next to it. Benton’s America Today , which mixes firsthand observation of American life with cubist and Marxist theory, is certainly America’s best mural painting, rivaled only by Benton’s next-best mural, A Social History of Missouri in the State Capitol in Jefferson City. Benton also produced easel paintings of impressive quality, ranging from Persephone , his sensuous Surregionalist exploration of what men feel when they look at naked women, to adventurous abstractions, such as the Synchromist painting known as Bubbles, which was once owned by H. L. Mencken. Despite the popular misconception that he was a hillbilly yahoo, Benton read widely, spoke French, drank in modernism at its source in Paris, and devised a step-by-step method of constructing abstract compositions that provided the basis for the drip paintings of his most famous pupil, Jackson Pollock. His talents were not limited to painting. Benton was a gifted musician, who collected folk tunes, performed on a record released by Decca, and invented a new form of musical notation for the harmonica. He was also a marvelous writer. His memoir, An Artist in America , which Sinclair Lewis praised, at times rivals the prose of Mark Twain and is certainly the best book ever written by an American painter. In short, Benton was a fascinating, widely traveled, richly cultured man, one of America’s finest painters but also much more than that. I would not necessarily claim he was America’s greatest painter, but he is certainly the most abused and underrated major American artist—one who deserves much nicer, more thoughtful, and more accurate treatment than he has received.