An Artist in America – Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton has a rich history and added much to the collection of Regionalism in American art. Born in a well-to-do family in Neosho, Missouri in 1889, Benton’s father pushed his son to follow in his own steps to become a lawyer.  His own uncle, from whom his name was given, Thomas Hart Benton, was a state senator (Theodore Roosevelt even wrote a book about the man), and added to the feeling of lofty expectations for the young Benton.  The more his father pushed to pursue law, Thomas reeled the other way.  As a teen, he left Neosho and worked as a surveyor in nearby Joplin.  No so much to be a surveyor, but it was his opportunity to escape from the small town that he felt harnessed him to the prominent family he was born to.  One night in Joplin, he was at a bar, admiring the artwork on the wall of a bare maiden.  The older gentlemen ridiculed him and he explained he was an artist, admiring the artistic qualities of the piece.  They all laughed at him, but one of the men suggested he apply at the paper to be the artist and use his talents.  Though they did not know, his drawings were more of a hobby and he was terrified of the idea of becoming a professional artist at that time.  He got the job and did pretty well at drawing pictures of the locals for articles in the paper.  Soon, he realized his political father had friends everywhere, and Joplin was not a big enough to escape the feeling of being judged, so the search for himself continued. He wound up in Chicago at art school, but felt the assignments of drawing classical sculptures limited his abilities, and he took the leap to move to Paris to explore their art scene.  He felt the friends he met were often too critical and always he felt out of place, so after a few years in pre-WWI Europe, he moved to New York, where he dabbled in a film career, but mostly made his means through little jobs here and there.  He got in with some well-to-dos and began painting these men and it became a more steady income.  During the war, he was employed doing technical drawings of buildings and work places and he found it really showcased his talent.  After the war, he continued this practice in art, and traveled the country drawing the people and their workplaces, and found the Regionalism art movement in America to be his niche.  From this, he became a famous muralist.

The book he wrote, An Artist in America, tells of his travels across our country, drawing everyday scenes.  From the hill countries in the Ozarks and Appalachia, the Mississippi River, North, South, East and West, Benton went everywhere.  His stories are often comical, and give the reader a chance to meet the people he encountered along the way.  Benton was quite a philosophical man, and many times between stories, he goes into verbose asides about the underlying situations in the areas he traveled.

For me, the stories are worth the read. His deep thoughts are interesting and relevant, but the seem to slow down the book.  I am glad they are included because I can really see his stream of conscious as it examines the belief of the times and his explanations of the places and people he meets.

For example, while speaking of crooked businessmen he met in New York, he countered the thought of their crooked racket and explored their other side of gentlemanly manner by saying, “On the edge of the underworld, chivalry makes its last stand.  In the dread impermanence of its life there comes to this land a rush of strange and extravagant sentiments, loyalties, devotions, and hates.  Among other things, the perfume of the lilies of love comes there, an extraordinarily pungent narcotic to disguise with the grace of tender illusion the sinister wills and compulsions of the rackets.”

Benton so loved the railroads and showed his feelings when he said, “To this day I cannot face an oncoming steam train without having itchy thrills run up and down my backbone.”  Drawing gave him a worthy excuse to travel and move.  A stationary artist was limited in his eyes.  The people and their lives were what made America beautiful.  He also appreciated the natural beauty of the land, and made a wonderful observation come to life in his description of the cypress swamps of the south, “Nothing on the face of the earth has a more forbidding beauty than a cypress swamp.  The trees with their fat curling bases rise out of the dark water like enormous fungi.  As a rule they have little foliage, and that is transparent, fragile, and lacy.  From their branches long whiskers of moss hang in gray veils.  Sometimes a dead tree stands up stark, like a piece of white sculpture.”  Truly beautiful descriptions of people and places in this book.


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