Although he’d been to soirées in “Paree” and New York’s Stork Club, American artist and muralist Thomas Hart Benton played a harmonica and reveled in his self-honed image as a hard-drinking hillbilly. Detractors,
both past and present, dismissed Benton’s art as “Okie baroque”, while supporters praised his efforts to paint realistic images based on American subject matter. During Benton’s long life (1889-1975), he constantly moved people to tears –
tears of rage as well as love. ”
On the “good side” were ambition, talent and skill. “But he was also seduced by fame and attracted by attention.There were many ironies in Benton’s life. For example, his most famous student was Jackson Pollock, whose abstract
expressionist paintings are the antithesis, almost an affront, to Benton’s own work. He was also a Midwesterner and proud of it, but fled East and overseas to develop a style which his best known for celebrating rural America.
Born in Neosho, Missouri, Benton was the product of a prodigiously unhappy marriage. Art was far from what his father, Colonel Maecenas Benton, had in mind for his son, whom he shipped of to military school.
The elder Benton couldn’t have been a more inappropriate mate for Benton’s beautiful, artistically-inclined mother, Elizabeth. The Colonel was a rough-hewn politician, four times elected to Congress and known as the “little giant of the Ozarks.”
Benton hit his stride as a determinedly realistic painter. At a time when revolutionary art forms were flourishing, Benton was working on huge murals and audacious paintings that reflected raw American life, some of it historical,
mostly of ordinary folk caught in the throes of hard work.