Thomas Hart Benton was the John Steinbeck of the painting world. “Okie baroque” is how many critics described his artwork. Other’s loved it. The images have a sense of being there — the in your imagination, being there — with all the senses. The scents of horses, livestock, oil fields radiate from the paintings with a whiff of turpentine and linseed oil.
Filmmaker Ken Burns noted Benton’s persona as being a hard-drinking, harmonica-playing hillbilly. He was far from it. Born in 1889, Benton was from a privileged political family from “The Show-Me State.” His namesake, Missouri’s first senator, Thomas Hart “Old Bullion” Benton, his great-great-uncle. Tom was the son of Bullion’s nephew, Colonel Maecenas Benton, a four-term congressman. His first cousin, Jesse Benton Fremont, Old Bullion’s daughter, was an author that was married to “The Pathfinder,” General John C. Fremont, who invaded California in 1846 and claimed the territory for the United States.
Like many great men, Benton was a walking paradox, “an anti-intellectual intellectual,” as writer Justin Wolff described him. He could be crude as well a delightful, depending upon the situation. A man’s man and American’s American, he saw the flyover states in the country as neglected by the look-down-the-nose culture of the coastal elites.
For his calculated slights to other styles and ideology, he became a whipping boy for the avant-garde art movement of his time the way Donald Trump would become the political whipping boy of progressive thinkers over three-quarters of a century later. Both men rejected leftist views and gained the label, “fascist and xenophobe” by their opposition.
Young “Tom” had a contrary bent, making him much like Fremont in that he did not live by conventional standards. His paintings and murals both delighted and infuriated people with its subject matter. Fremont, who was born in Savannah, Georgia, led an expedition through California while it was Mexican territory and created an international event. Benton stirred up a tiff after appearing on the cover of Life Magazine one year and was exiled from New York the next for his disdain for the world of modern art. Ironically, his Regionalism-style paintings were often first worked out in cubist-modernistic scale drawings to create the flow of the images that would adorn the lobbies of rural post offices, the halls of statehouses, and the mansion walls of the wealthy.
Depicting Missouri’s history in a commissioned mural, he showed the good and the bad of what had happened by including characters from his own family, slavery, and literature. His father, brother, ordinary folks, and slave auctions are depicted as well as Mark Twain’s literary classic, Huckleberry Finn. In a mural for the State of Indiana to highlight their World’s Fair, Century of Progress display, he did the same and ruffled feathers by depicting a hooded gathering of the KKK. In 2017, clueless Indiana State students demanded the removal of the section which illustrated Benton’s disdain for the racist group. According to historians, during the Great Depression, twenty to forty percent of the state’s white-male population was composed of dues-paying KKK members.
Jackson Pollock’s renowned abstract paintings can be linked directly to The Mechanics of Form: Organization in Painting, a textbook written by his mentor, Tom Benton. Stanton Macdonald-Wright, two years younger than Benton, was a co-founder of the Synchronism movement of modern art in the early twentieth century and considered him a good friend. Benton had tried the modernist style but after a decade and a half rejected it. “I wallowed in every cockeyed ism that came along… and it took me ten years to get all that modernist dirt out of my system.”
He married Italian immigrant, Rita Piacenza when he was thirty-three years old. The two met when he was teaching an art class in New York. He died while he was painting in his studio in 1975. He and Rita had been married for fifty-three years. Rita died eleven weeks later. During their long marriage, they had two children, Thomas Piacenza who was born in 1926 and a daughter named for his great aunt, Jessie, in 1929.
– JD Byous