Thomas Hart Benton American RegionalistThroughout out the history of mankind, art has played an important part in the every day lives of people. Art is everywhere around us. It is in the paper that we read the children’s books we grew up with, and on the billboard s we pass on the side of the road. Art has the ability to inspire us and lead us. It’s in the magazines we look at, the pictures that we hang on our wall, and even in the video games we play on the computer. It can change our attitude on a subject and has the ability to give us a whole new perspective on life. It has the ability to bring past events to life and bring outdoor scenes into our living rooms. The 1930’s saw the rise of the American Regionalist movement. At the heart of this movement was Thomas Hart Benton. During his career he painted over 75 paintings not including stationary murals from before his death in 1975.During his career he was also known as the enemy of modernism . Thomas Benton Hart’s artwork captures the lives of early twentieth century Americans with a striking reality.
To better understand the work of Thomas Hart Benton we must first learn about his life from the beginning. Thomas Hart Benton was born in Neosho Missouri in 1889; born in the post-civil war era, Benton saw significant change in his lifetime. Born to a middle class family, Benton had many jobs throughout his lifetime. Named after his great uncle; Missouri’s first state senator, Benton was instantly surrounded by the political scene, which would become the subject of a great many of his works. His father, a prominent man, was an U.S. attorney and Representative from 1896 to1904 -. His education began at the Western Military Academy in Altm Illinois, where he learned such sports as Fly Weight Boxing . At the young age of sixteen Benton began his education in the arts at the Institute of Chicago. Three years later at nineteen Benton headed for Paris to begin studies at the Academie Julian. This concluded Benton’s formal artistic education, around the year 1926 Benton began to emerge with his mature style of art; including his commitment to American Regionalism. Benton spent much of his early career in New York City, where in 1912 he set up his first studio at 65th and Broadway. While in his New York City studio Benton supported himself by earning seven dollars a day painting movie queens , as well as his first job cartooning for the Joplin American . This early struggle gave Benton a first hand view of the harsh lifestyle a poor American faced trying to move up in an industrializing world. During the summer of 1917 Benton got his first respectable job as the director of the Peoples Gallery in New York City.
While doing this he began teaching at the Chelsea Neighborhood Association, where he would eventually meet his wife. His work at these was interrupted by a call to service in the United States Navy for World War Two . His service there would later lead to his contributing twenty-five works to the Abbot collection of naval art . Benton served in the Norfolk Naval base in Virginia. His experiences there are those he would include in his works, such as shipbuilding and hard physical labor. After his service abroad and time spent on some of his more famous works, and teaching at the University of Mo (1935-1941) and later at the age of forty-eight released his autobiography An Artist In America in 1937. During the 1950’s Benton spent the majority of his time interpreting the history of America from his point of view, to eventually conclude his work with a series of murals known rightfully as The History of America. To conclude his lifetime career and contributions to art, in 1963 Benton was inducted to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City . He later received the Jennie Sesnan Medal of New York Architecture League as well as the Wanamaker’s Purchase Prize.
Benton became a founder of American Regionalism as he began to release art from the dry viewpoint of the academy and the “still life” restrictions of the studio. American Regionalism refers to the work of a group of rural artists, mostly from the Midwest, who came to prominence in the 1930’s. Not being part of any other present movement, regionalists often had a realistic or ideal style. What they shared amongst themselves, an anti-modernist style and a fondness for depicting everyday life . As Benton was once known to say “Art should be a living thing which has meaning for the public in general. ” he believed that art was meant to communicate a message or reality, and not become just another picture on the wall. Benton, along with other notable artists such as Grant Wood, John Curry, and William Groper turned towards realism during the 1920’s and 30’s. In Time magazine’s first color issue, on December 24th, 1924 Benton, Grant and Curry were hailed as modernists, proclaiming that the United States no longer had to look to Europe for modern regional art . This is ironic, however, because in later life Benton became known as the enemy of modernism.
The main purpose of Benton’s works is to capture the way of life experienced by American settler. As Benton was once known to say, “Art should be a living thing, which has meaning for the public in general. ” He believed that art was meant to communicate a message or reality, and not become another picture on the wall. The majority of his subject is Westward expansion. Since Benton was surrounded by this from his birth, he brings a first hand view of this to all generations following him. His subjects are ordinary people doing ordinary things. His painting subject however was not limited to just this, mainly do to the fact that he shunned matter of monetary value or picturesque interest . He was more interested in the real lives of people. He collaborated on over twenty-five paintings commemorating naval service, and shipbuilding. In addition to this he spent a small amount of time expressing his Marxist views and concepts through his art. At the time of his political involvement he was a card carrying communist who allowed secret meetings to be held at his house . When contributing his paintings to the naval art galleries Benton wished to convey just what it was to be in the navy. His paintings describe with great detail the hardships and difficult tasks entailed in the job. The hardships are displayed through men rushing enemy lines, coming up hostile beaches, and climbing cargo nets.
The difficulties of the jobs are portrayed through scenes of shipbuilding, mooring of boats. All this is pronounced by the only two full color paintings of the set. The triumphant launching of completed boats, after significant work contributions from all parties involved. This work was done with Georges Schriber in 1943 on the American Submarine Dorado . Benton’s greatest theme of westward expansion frames the average American of the early twentieth century. Benton spent the majority of his lifetime interpreting the history of American expansion through painting and mural painting . The most significant of his murals can still be found on the side of the Truman library depicting the decades from 1817 to 1847. Benton is best known, however, for his paintings of westward expansion. When the individual tries to picture this in their mind, they think of the classic buggy heading west through the plains, horses pulling carriages laden with the goods of the family, or the typical plains family working the field. This is exactly what Benton captures in his work. Benton’s main goal in painting was to capture the livelyhood of the American expansion westward throughout the plains. His paintings display the everyday encounters from person to person, and the work and hardships that they faced day in and day out. This is done from a very candid and realistic viewpoint that is trademark to Benton.
Throughout his lifetime career in art, Benton has used number of different medium to express his ideas. Benton was absolutely fascinated by watercolor and its applications . Often times he found himself returning to this after experimenting with alternatives. Some of his other experimentation has ranged to include lithography and clay works . Benton was also known for his use of Egg Temper, and oil based paints . These gave him an alternative medium when he got board with his “same old thing”. When moving from these to return to a more intimate form of easel painting, Benton was know to use both egg tempera as well as oils. When applying these types of paints he most commonly used a board or canvas to paint on. Another form of paint used by Benton is Distemper . This mixture of water and colored powder provided him paint with a glossier base. At the height of his career, Benton painted several large murals, ranging over ten feet in height and twenty feet long . Four of these murals were done from the period of 1930 to 1935, which were the equivalent of 7000sq. feet of canvas . These are most definitely his decisive works, in which his political points were stressed.
The style of Thomas Benton Hart separates him from all other artists. He has a wide variety of trademarks that distinguish his works from others even to the most inexperienced of viewers. Most notably of these is his use of elongated figures. Often times the subjects of his pictures would fill the work from top to bottom. This made them the focus of the viewer and allowed Benton to further punctuate the point he intended the work to stress. Benton’s use of elongated figures allows him to add shadowing to a variety of new angles created by the twisting of the human body. Benton’s shadowing becomes even more intense when he switches his works to solely black and white. His disproportion in landscapes, and rolling scenes allow him to capture the massive open spaces of the American Plains during the early twentieth century; being the subject of many of his works. When closely examined, Benton’s works depicting westward expansion have swirled clouds in the background. While these swirled clouds lead the eye in a circular pattern they draw the viewer into the image as a whole, and better convey the feeling of spaciousness Benton intended. This can be considered a trademark of his paintings. If the viewer takes a close look at the expressions of the subjects in the majority of Benton’s works it is not uncommon to find a lack of significant facial features. This however is balanced out by immense detail in the surroundings and scenery. Benton seems to stress the idea of the painting as a whole over the idea the individuals’ importance. This is quite true of Benton and his motives as he wished to capture the time period as a whole, and not just through the individual. Benton’s paintings and murals often appear to tell a story as well. He will often use scenes from folklore, tales passed on from generation to generation, and even the occasional storybook scene.
Thomas Hart Benton has done a number of works for both the navy and depicting the westward expansion of the early Twentieth Century American. The Crash (Appendix A) is perhaps the defining work in his set of westward expansion paintings. The Crash is Benton at his best, using each of his unique styles to capture the essence of the moment when a wagon is about to collide with a derailing train near a cornfield in what appears to be the Great American Plains. There is a single white horse pulling a less than decadent wagon, driven by what appears to be a father and son. A woman all in white is falling off the back of the wagon as they impact. A typical Benton painting puts great detail into the surroundings and significantly less into the human subjects. Each aspect of the painting perfectly captures the ideas of Westward expansion. The corn stalks in the fore ground represent the staple crop of the Great Plains as well as the wheat grain growing in the background. If one looks closely at the train tracks the broken wooden post appears to symbolize a mail post, which was the typical means of communication for the era. The wagon is traveling along a rutted dirt road, lined by a barbed wire and post fence, typical of the Western frontier. Lastly, Benton’s typical rolling blue sky with stark white clouds is contrasted by thick black smoke belching from the train featured in the picture. This shows how the industrialization was poisoning a clean crisp country, and helped Benton to express his disgust for cities and industrialization. Benton was a big supported of down home goodness, and old country folklore, things expanding into this territory and creating great change were looked down upon by him. Benton’s works come from two main categories. The second of these being from his contributions to the Abbot Laboratories collection of United States Navy art. His service in the navy during World War One and his experience in the political scene from his family provided him the experiences and subject matter he would need to create twenty-five masterpieces.
Cutting the line (appendix B) is about the release of a completed ship from the harbor for the first time. Although it does not include the same bright colors and blue skies or his Westward expansion works. His use of the rolling skies and wave, coupled with the dark skies capture the moment perfectly. He captures a true slice of American life during the era. The time period was just after war’s grim reality was discovered through world war one, and nearing the dawn of world war two. The nation was enthralled in military buildup and Benton captures this enthrallment perfectly. Despite the stormy day, bystanders have shown up on the beach to watch the launching of the ship. Thomas Hart Benton was a truly incredible artist. He captured not only his period in time with striking accuracy, but he was able to impart a piece of himself in the past. By grasping difficult concepts and mastering his skills in artistry, Benton was able to provide the present with the spirit of the past. He was a man of his era, and expanded art in a way similar to those who expanded the nation westward.
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