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The University of Arizona Museum of Art and Archive of Visual Arts

ART/WRITE – Thomas Hart Benton

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Thomas Hart Benton


1. Biography

Thomas Hart Benton became a leading figure in the 1930’s American art movement known as Regionalism. Born in 1889 in rural Neosho, Missourito a prominent political family,Benton studied art despite his congressman father’s objections. Studying at the Art Institute of Chicago for a short period from 1907-1908, Benton left America to study in Paris in 1908 where he met the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Diego’s use of vivid colors and depictions of the everyday working man greatly influenced Benton’s style.

Benton returned to New York in 1913 and shortly after in 1918 documented his rejection of Modernism in his autobiography. His return home to rural Missouri in 1924 to visit his dying father solidified his move away from abstraction to realism and a desire to record rural American life. His prints and paintings after this date reflect this change in style and subject matter. During the 1920’s, Benton would trek through remote areas of rural America, sketching examples of everyday folk. Benton disdained the elitist, high society of New York but loved the common folk and everyday man. Benton escaped the New York art scene through his acceptance of a teaching position at the Kansas City Art Institute where he would reside until his death in 1975.

Benton, like other Regionalists sought to document the hard working people of the rural landscape that were forgotten and victimized by the changing modern and mechanized economy of the early twentieth century. His easel paintings and his better known murals, such as The Indiana Murals (1933) and A Social History of Missouri (1936), sought to capture his vision of what he called the “hardworking folk who lacked predatory qualities and were responsible for making their own way into the world”. With a focus on the individual as well as the local, Benton’s mural, A Social History of Missouri included 235 individual portraits.

Woodchopper (1936), is typical of this Regionalist style of Benton’s in that he captures a rural individual making his “own way” in rugged, isolated conditions. A lone farmer chops wood on a cold Midwestern winter day. One could read this lifestyle and scene as depressing and bleak, or heroic and idyllic. But either way most viewers are forced to have admiration for the solitary figure, bent hard to labor, not for the faceless- industrial company, but for himself. Benton’s typical use of swirling forms unites separate sections of the composition. The curve of the woodchopper’s body echoes the curve of the haystack behind him which gives way to the curves and swirls of the expansive winter sky.

His painting style can be seen as quintessential nineteenth century, capturing an American sentiment of an era and place that was quickly disappearing. His work has also been interpreted as a narrow and simplistic view of nationalism that excluded other perspectives or experiences as authentic American ones.

Bibliography:

Guedon, M.S. (1945). Regionalist Art: Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood. Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press.

Weintraub, L (1984). Thomas HartBenton: Chronicler ofAmerica’s Folk Heritage.New York: Edith C. Blum Art Institute.

2. History

Several factors occurred during the 1920-30’s to set the stage for the art movement known as Regionalism of which Thomas Hart Benton was a major part. Immediately after WW I, the United States began a period of isolationalism that lasted until the start of WW II in 1941. This attitude had a direct impact on American artists. A few artists still looked to Europe for stylistic influence, with New York City symbolizing the port of entry for these modern, abstract European styles. But a greater amount of American artists referred back to realism in order to document and pay tribute to American life and sought to define a truly American art. Their style would be defined by a representational depiction of everyday American life which was easily accessible and visually readable by the “everyday man”.

America’s isolationalism, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed sparked a backlash against capitalism, European modernism, and urban elitism. Census reports from 1920 also record a major demographic shift in the United Statesas more Americans than ever before were reported living in urban centers than in rural areas. Regionalism grew out of these conditions as a reaction to industrial dehumanization, long bread lines and a perceived loss of traditional values. Thomas Hart Benton, along with John Steuart Curry (see Hogs Killing a Rattlesnake, 1930), and Grant Wood (see Tree Planting, 1937), were leading figures in the Regionalist art movement during the 1930’s. The art movement gained publicity and support through the Federal Art Project, a unit of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), funded as part ofRoosevelt’s New Deal.

Benton and other Regionalist artists responded to Modernism in art as well as the modern industrial landscape in urban settings. The solution, they believed, was in America’s past and most directly in its agrarian roots. While the underlying obsession of Regionalism was time, place became the symbolic imagery in which to communicate, in a universal manner, their message. The American Midwest therefore became the setting and subject of their paintings, murals, drawings and prints. Placing their faith in agricultural life, Regionalist artists captured a time and place where values such as family, hard work, and independence defined America. The Depression era American public took refuge in these idyllic, romanticized scenes of rural farm life while films such as The Wizard of Oz and works in literature such as John Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath were also popular, especially with urban audiences.

Bibliography:

Dennis, J.M. (1998). Renegade Regionalists: The modern independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry.Madison: TheUniversity ofWisconsin Press.

Guedon, M.S. (1945). Regionalist Art: Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood. Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press.


3. Writing Exercises

Expository- Compare/Contrast

Both images, The Locomotive, by Salvatore Pinto and The Woodchopper  by Thomas Benton were created during the 1930’s and capture an American scene. Compare and contrast these images and the messages conveyed. Use the Text to Text Comparison worksheet to organize and record observations.

Description- Descriptive Walk

Spend a few minutes and look closely at the painting, The Woodchopper. Now close your eyes and imagine living within this scene. How cold is it? What do you hear, smell? If you turn to your left, what would you see? What could you see to your right, behind you? Who are you? What is your relation to the gentleman chopping wood? What is your life like? Step back out of the painting. Free write for a short period describing what you experienced inhabiting the scene.

Extension- Extend this scene into a short story.

Narrative- Fictional Letter

In Letter from Overseas, a young woman receives a letter in the mail. Who is the sender? What is their relationship to the young woman? Where are they?  Why they are writing a letter? Is the content of the letter good news or bad? What visual evidence do you see that supports your opinions? Write the letter that the woman is reading.

Extension- Write the woman’s response.