Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Controversial Thomas Hart Benton

My list of favorite artists could go on and on. But how could I leave out Thomas Hart Benton? For almost 20 years, I lived in Kansas City, Missouri, where Benton spent his later years. I admired his paintings in federal and state buildings and in museums. If anything, he was a visual historian who recorded the lives of the ordinary and simple people who struggled, built and forged this great land we call America.

One source described it perfectly: “Benton’s fluid almost sculpted paintings show everyday scenes of life in the United States of America.” That fluid, sculpted look is what drew me to his paintings. There is so much fluidity that your eye literally flows through his paintings and undulates over each figure and scene. Of course, these images are fuzzy so I encourage you to search him out and view the paintings firsthand.

Born in Neosho, Missouri in 1889 to an influential family of politicians and powerbrokers, Benton rebelled against his father’s hopes for his political future. Instead, he chose to develop his interest in art. As a teenager, he worked as a cartoonist for the Joplin American newspaper, in Joplin, Missouri. He then studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and later in Paris at the Académie Julian.

Along with Grant Wood, Benton was at the forefront of the Regionalist Art Movement where he primarily painted the Midwest. In his later years, he taught at the Kansas City Art Institute. The scenes he painted were of poor farmers and laborers, factory workers and slaves picking cotton. He admitted he was a Socialist at heart and in politics left leaning. His style and subjects represent those beliefs.

Benton married an Italian immigrant Rita Piacenza whom he met while teaching for a brief time in New York. She was one of his art students. She returned with him to Kansas City where they were married for 53 years. When Benton died, Rita joined him 10 weeks later.

His canvases are a portrayal of history and a moving drama of a lost way of life. He captured form and enjoyed exaggerating not only the ebb and flow of life, but of the figure and the land.

As before, I have interspersed some of my paintings with his. Please enjoy Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975).