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

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.

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.  

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). 

He taught at the Art Students League in New York City from 1926 to 1935 where he was a popular, if idiosyncratic, teacher. Jackson Pollock studied with Benton for many years but theirs was far more than a teacher-student relationship. Pollock greatly admired the hard-charging, heavy-drinking, successful Benton and became a close family friend. He babysat the Benton’s children and vacationed with them on Martha’s Vineyard. In return, they tolerated (and facilitated) his drunken binges, including the one where Pollock professed his love for Benton’s wife and asked her to marry him. 

Despite Benton’s growing recognition and success, he was continually at odds with the New York art world – he hated its elitism and pretentiousness and the critics savaged his work. In 1935 he relocated to Kansas City and stayed there for the remainder of his life. He continued to paint murals and some of these – such as A Social History of Missouri (1935-36), the History of Indiana (1932) Independence and the Opening of the West (1956), and The Sources of Country Music (1975) – are among his greatest accomplishments. 

Despite charges that his murals were a cliche, Benton refused to idealize the past and his work was often controversial. His Missouri project included slaves being whipped, a lynched man hanging from a tree, and the James brothers staging bank and train robberies. The Indiana painting prominently featured the Ku Klux Klan holding a rally in front of a burning cross. In both cases, local citizens were outraged. 

Wolff makes clear that Benton had a difficult if not volcanic personality. Among the adjectives he uses to describe him are surly, belligerent, arrogant, pugnacious, combative, gruff, inflexible, cantankerous, argumentative, churlish, cruel, and blunt. He was a “heavy-handed” “blowhard” who had “a hard time making friends.” In case that’s not enough, Wolff suggests that he was also homophobic and misogynistic.  

Given this personality readers will wish that Wolff had spent more time describing Benton’s immediate family and the role they played in his life. The portrait of Benton’s parents is insightful and thorough and Benton’s relationship with Pollock is carefully examined. But his wife Rita – who was central to Benton’s artistic success and provided much-needed emotional ballast – gets relatively little attention. Their children, Jessie and TJ, are barely mentioned. 

In the end, Wolff focuses heavily on how this accomplished, popular, complex, and controversial painter found and continually refined his artistic voice. The volume is carefully researched and exceptionally readable. Wolff clearly admires Benton’s accomplishments but is frank in describing his work – as when he calls one of the artist’s best-known murals “hackneyed” and “banal.” Given Benton’s place in the evolution of modern art in America and the ease with which he is overlooked today, this is a valuable and welcome book.

Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.

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