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Thomas Hart Benton: A Life

Biographer Justin Wolff makes a strong case that Thomas Hart Benton played a central role as American art moved into the modern era.

By Terry Hartle / May 21, 2012

Thomas Hart Benton: A Life By Justin Wolff Farrar, Straus and Giroux 416 pp.

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During the hard luck years of the 1930s, Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings celebrating the virtues of small towns and farms, hard work, family, and community made him the nation’s best known artist.  

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But while his idealized vision of American life was popular during the Depression, its appeal did not last long. With the emergence of Abstract Expressionism at the end of the World War II, Benton's realist works quickly fell out of favor. Yet even as the art world changed dramatically, Benton remained a leading, if often controversial, figure.

Thanks to Thomas Hart Benton: A Life, Justin Wolff’s new biography of Benton, we have the chance to renew our understanding and appreciation of this seminal figure and his legacy. Wolff convincingly demonstrates that Benton was a gifted artist who played a central role as American art moved into the modern era.

Benton was born in Missouri in 1889. His great uncle and namesake was a celebrated US senator and his father served multiple terms in the US House of Representatives. But Benton resisted his father’s demands that he pursue the family business and he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1909, he moved to Paris and became acquainted with Impressionism and modern art. He continued to experiment with color abstractions after moving to New York City in 1912 and briefly became one of the artists who surrounded Alfred Stieglitz. Surprisingly, given what we remember him for today, Benton was, according to Wolff, an accomplished modernist. 

But Benton was never comfortable with abstraction and struggled to find his artistic vision. Wolff notes that as late as 1917, “Benton didn’t possess a coherent principle of art…. To not know if one was a figurative or abstract painter was to not know the most fundamental thing about oneself.” Gradually, his art evolved in a representational direction that Wolff calls “modernist realism” and focused on American life and subject matter. 

Starting in 1929, he began to depict the American experience through monumental wall paintings and his efforts presaged the revival of mural painting in the following decade. In 1929-30, for example, he painted a series of “America Today” murals for the New School for Social Research (now displayed in the AXA building on New York's Sixth Avenue). In 1932, he did a series entitled “The Arts of Life in America” for the Whitney Museum of American Art (now in the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut). 

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