Sunday 23 October 2011

Thomas Hart Benton - part 1

This is the first of a four-part post on the works of American painter and muralist Thomas Hart Benton (1889 – 1975). Benton was at the forefront of the Regionalist art movement. He was born in Neosho, Missouri in 1889 into an influential family of politicians and powerbrokers. In 1907 Benton enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, but left for Paris in 1909 to continue his art education at the Académie Julian. In Paris, Benton met other North American artists, such as the Mexican Diego Rivera and Stanton Macdonald-Wright.

After studying in Europe, Benton moved to New York City in 1913 and resumed painting. During World War I he served in the U.S. Navy and was stationed at Norfolk, Virginia. His war-related work had an enduring effect on his style. He was directed to make drawings and illustrations of shipyard work and life, and this requirement for realistic documentation strongly affected his later style. (Note: Part 4 of these posts will feature Benton’s war art)

On his return to New York in the early 1920s, Benton declared himself an "enemy of modernism"; he began the naturalistic and representational work today known as Regionalism. Benton was active in leftist politics. He expanded the scale of his Regionalist works, culminating in his America Today murals at the New School for Social Research in 1930-31. These now hang in the lobby of the AXA building at 1290 Sixth Avenue in New York City. He was strongly influenced by the works of the Spanish artist El Greco.

1930 City Activities with Dance Hall

1930 City Activities with Subway

Benton broke through to the mainstream in 1932. A relative unknown, he won a commission to paint the murals of Indiana life that were the state's contribution to the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, Illinois. In 1932 he also painted The Arts of Life in America, a controversial set of large murals for an early site of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In 1934 Benton was featured on one of the earliest colour covers of Time magazine. Benton's work was featured along with that of fellow Mid-westerners Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry in an article entitled "The U.S. Scene". The trio were featured as the new heroes of American art, and Regionalism was described as a significant art movement.

He settled in Kansas City, Missouri and accepted a teaching job at the Kansas City Art Institute. Kansas City afforded Benton greater access to rural America, which was changing rapidly. Benton's sympathy was with the working class and the small farmer. In the late 1930s, he created some of his best-known work, including the iconic allegorical nude Persephone, which for a while hung in Billy Rose’s nightclub, the Diamond Horseshoe. It is now held by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

1938-9 Persephone oil on canvas 183 x 142 cm

During this period, Benton also began to produce signed, limited edition lithographs which were sold at $5.00 each through the Associated American Artists galleries. (Note: Part 3 of these posts will feature Benton’s lithographs)
During World War II, Benton created a series titled The Year of Peril, which portrayed the threat to American ideals by fascism and Nazism. The prints were widely distributed.

The Year of Peril - Embarkation

The Year of Peril - Sowers

Following the war, Regionalism fell from favour, eclipsed by the rise of Abstract Expressionism. Benton remained active for another 30 years, but his work portrayed less social commentary and showed bucolic images of pre-industrial farmlands. Benton died in 1975 at work in his studio.

Note: Sizes given have been rounded up or down to the nearest whole centimetre:

n.d. Cotton Bin 
oil on tin 23 x 33 cm

1920 People of Chilmark (Figure Compostion) 
oil on canvas 166 x 197cm

1921 The Cliffs 
oil on canvas 74 x 88 cm

1922 Chilmark Landscape 
oil on paper 39 x 58 cm

1922 Self-Portrait with Wife Rita

1926 The Lord is my Shepherd 
tempera on canvas 84 x 69 cm

1928 Boomtown 
oil on canvas 117 x 138 cm

1928 The Cotton Pickers

1931-2 Romance 
tempera and oil on panel 114 x 84 cm

1932 Arts of the West

1932 The Arts of the City

1934 Lord, Heal the Child

1934 The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley 
tempera and oil on canvas 105 x 133 cm

1936 A Social History of the State of Missouri, Huckleberry Finn

1936 Kansas City from Politics, Farming and the Law

1938 Roasting Ears

1938 The Flood

1938 Threshing Wheat

1938 TP and Jake

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.