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What moved Thomas Hart Benton

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KANSAS CITY, Mo.---The friendly waiting area in the stable-studio of the Thomas Hart Benton Home includes a black and white photo of the artist working on a painting of a river rolling by a limestone bluff in his beloved Ozarks. Benton loved rivers.
He devoted a chapter of his autobiography "An Artist in America" (first published in 1937) to rivers. He wrote:
"...There is over these summer night waters and on the shadowed lands that border them an ineffable peace, an immense quiet, which puts all ambitious effort back in its futile place and makes of a simple drift of sense and feeling the ultimate and proper end of life..."
In his later years Benton painted from a more personal viewpoint.

Benton died in 1975 while working on "The Sources of Country Music," a six-foot by 10-foot mural that was commissioned by the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. He was 85 years old.
Benton grew up listening to country music around the Ozarks......

.......The train in the back of the country music mural was a variation of "Cannonball Special," driven and then wrecked by Casey Jones---who was later popularized by the Grateful Dead. Benton only had a photo of the train and did not like working off of photographs. He had planned a road trip from Kansas City to St. Louis to pick up a model of the Cannonball Special.
"The Sources of Country Music" (courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame)

But Benton died of a massive heart attack while working on the mural. He fell on his watch, which stopped at 7:05 p.m. Jan. 18, 1975.
"My American image is made up of what I have come across," he once said. "Of what there is in the time of my experience. No more. No less."
That's realism.


You can make a day out of seeing Benton sites in Kansas City.
After visiting Benton's home and studio (pictured here on the right), drive two miles south east to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St. [admission FREE for ALL visitors].
Bentonphiles will discover 27 of his paintings, 36 drawings and 66 prints.

Benton was born in Neosho, Mo. He was the grand nephew of Missouri's first senator, Thomas Hart "Old Bullion" Benton. The artist came of age in a populist tradition that led Benton to depict the working class in rural rather than large industrial settings.

"He was pretty good friends with some political leaders," said Steve Sitton, Historic Site Administrator for Missouri State Parks which manages the home and studio. "Tom was friends with Harry Truman. Truman said Tom was the 'Best damn painter in America'."
Although Benton was grouped with Iowan Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry of Kansas as a "Regionalist," he thought that was a limiting marketing term.

Margi Conrads, Samuel Sosland Senior Curator of American Art at the Nelson-Atkins explained, "As Benton titles his book he saw himself as 'An' or even 'The' American artist.' To limit to him geography was a limiting idea. That said, what he believed Midwestern subjects could represent was something applicable to the whole concept of America." Conrads has been working in the Benton field for 15 years.

When you arrive at the free museum head to the Enid and Crosby Kemper Rotunda in the second floor Sarah & Landon Rowland Art Gallery.
There you will find Benton's "Hollywood" which was the product of a 1937 trip to Hollywood sponsored by Life magazine. The work depicts the male-dominated machinery of the industry presided by a scantily clad female that could be Kansas City-born Jean Harlow, who had recently died. The background references the musical 'In Old Chicago' about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Life projected "Hollywood" as too risque for a family magazine. And guess what?
The painting appeared in Life anyway after it won a prize in a 1938 juried exhibition.

Here is where I wanted to show you an image of "Hollywood."
But after several calls to Nelson-Atkins I was directed to a New York representative for Benton's estate where I was told the Sun-Times had to fork over $400 for an image to print in the newspaper. [The Country Music Hall of Fame was kind enough to allow us to use "The Sources of Country Music"]
Then there was another rate for internet usage, and another rate depending on how long the image would appear on this blog.
Whoo boy! And to think Benton wanted to work as a newspaper cartoonist in 1907 when he came to Chicago .
So here is a neutral link to "Hollywood".

Before my dust-up with the art world Sitton said, "Benton's name recognition is not as well known as I would like. People know the style, but not necessarily the name."

Sitton said the Benton house and studio had 4,000 visitors in 2009; about 40 percent were from outside the Missouri-Kansas region. "We don't get a lot of international visitors becaue he's such an American artist," Sitton said.
This is inside Benton's studio, pretty much the way he looked the day he died:


Benton pulled no punches.
He was one of the few painters in the early 20th Century who addressed racial tensions in America. The Nelson-Atkins second floor gallery features "Minstrel Show," which Benton painted in 1934 after witnessing a black-faced performance in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia. According to the museum Benton later remarked, "It was a rotten affair."

In his "Indiana Murals" Benton went for the real-life approach and included the Ku Klux Klan which was active in the state during the period. Panels of this mural are on display in various rooms of Indiana University in Bloomington. Sitton said, "And in that same panel he also showed the newspaper men who were influential in the 1930s exposing the Klan in Indiana politics. He showed a nurse giving injections to an African-American girl. He showed both sides of the story. "

Also on the second floor of the Nelson-Atkins find the Benton painting of composer Carl Ruggles at the piano. They developed a friendship based in part on their shared interest in art and folk music.
Benton visited Ruggles at his home in Arlington, Vt. in 1933 and sketched the pianist as he performed. Most importantly, the painting hangs next to Edward Hopper's "The Light Battery at Gettysburg" Completed in 1940, it is only one of two oil paintings of historical subjects that Hopper did. Both focused on Gettysburg. "Light Battery's" long march to horizon may be a metaphor for the inevitability of death.
[Shipping crate in Benton studio.]

Sitton said the most common question he gets at the house is where Benton is buried.
"He and his wife were cremated," he answered. "And their ashes were scattered along Martha's Vineyard (where they had a beloved summer home)."

The final sentences of Thomas Hart Benton's autobiography is a good way to begin to understand the muscular muse of the artist:
Benton writes, "The rewards of art, for the artist himself, are concomitants of its practice. They lie in the life-heightening acuteness of his everyday occupational experiences.
"The only way an artist can personally fail is to quit work."

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It is such a pleasure to read something about Benton with as much affection for him as you put into your writing. Thank you. Benton was a quintessential American and I am very proud to be related to him through my grandmother. Thanks again.

great article and really interesting topic. Benton was a true American original with a sinewy style, a devil-may-care attitude toward the social norm, and a tempetuous Italian wife. I love his work and I'm glad you wrote about him!

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.


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