Thomas Hart Benton built a body of work from the experiences and observations that deeply affected him. Raised in a prominent political family in Missouri, he left to seek an arts education, studying at both the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Académie Julian in Paris. When he completed his formal training, he served as a draftsman for the Navy during World War I. As a diligent landscape artist, Benton began focusing less on the natural scenes around him, and began focusing more on the daily toil of life at the shipyard. Benton moved to New York in 1913 to work on his art, but he found himself more interested in the life he left behind. He began painting scenes of Midwestern life and people, who were not typically the subjects of art. His realistic style and regionalist approach found little acceptance in New York, where the experimental Modernist movement was exploding. Benton was ready to return to the Midwest. Ironically, this classically trained artist, who had earlier broken from his roots and traveled the world to explore art, found his greatest inspiration back at home.
The conflicts that he faced, cosmopolitan versus agrarian life and elitism versus public art, are apparent in his murals. Upon returning home, he began a series of public works projects, which were not locked behind glass in galleries, but presented on the brick walls of post offices, the sides of banks and on local government buildings. With a complex energy, his depictions of life were grand and detailed. One of his first works was a series of murals painted for the Indiana exhibit of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Each panel demonstrated both the evolution of his style and the long history of Indiana. With an astute use of shadow, color and detail, these murals depict the social and economic developments of the state. The working class and big business are just some of the groups represented in Benton’s Indiana murals. For some people, his frank presentation of Indiana’s history caused controversy.
However, this would not be the last time that his work fueled the fires of public outrage. In his most famous series of murals, “The Social History of Missouri,” Benton’s rich, complex colors spread over the span of Missouri’s history. The murals depict early settlers, laboring farmers and the introduction of the railroad. A heavy plume of smoke represents the Civil War and its affect on the people, while muscular, shirtless men, represent the steadfast toil of the people. Images of women at work, symbolizing progress, are portrayed in bold, striking narratives, as well as parts of the state’s history that were seen as contentious. The outlaw Jesse James and corrupt politician Tom Pendergast appear alongside everyday people. With a masterful mix of the nostalgic, the provocative and the historical, the famed murals illustrate Benton’s intention of sharing the true history of the state with the people.
Benton’s style and subject matter moved Regionalism beyond the realm of folk art and into the broader arena of significant artistic movements. Ironically, he was less interested in the discussions of elite art aficionados and critics, and more interested in providing everyday people with access to the power and passion of art. Though controversy often surrounded his work, Thomas hart Benton remained steadfast in his belief that life and art are, and should be, explicitly intertwined.