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Thomas Hart Benton
What do you do when you're the grandson of a well-known U.S. senator and expected by your parents to follow your namesake and family tradition by entering politics? The answer is, you become an artist, disappoint the entire family, and go on to become more famous than your grandfather. An unlikely scenario? Yes, probably, but that's exactly what Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton did. Born in 1889, Benton first studied art for a brief time at the Art Institute in Chicago, but his real heart lay in Europe. In 1908, he set sail to seek his fortune, so to speak, in the art capitals of France, England, and Italy where he studied for three years.

Although influenced by Cubism and something called Synchronism (which is a sort of abstractionism with primary emphasis on colour planes and organisation), what Benton brought back from Europe had little to do with these French avant-garde movements. His greatest influences were Italian--Michelangelo, Tintoretto, and El Greco (not Italian, but himself influenced strongly by Michelangelo). Upon returning to this country, Benton settled in New York City and did some nationally acclaimed work there, but his growing popularity soon brought him back to his Midwestern roots as he began receiving commissions for public works involving murals with historic themes in states such as Indiana, Illinois, and his home state of Missouri.

The mural was an ideal outlet for the style and grand influences Benton brought back from Europe. Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Jose Orozco had found popularity in this country by bringing with them from south of the border the nationalistic themes that struck a responsive chord in depression-ravaged hearts of their northern neighbours. Governments were also in the mood to support public works of art in everything from state capitols to local post offices. Though benefiting from such trends, Benton brought to mural painting something different, a new style, new colour, new compositional elements, and evolved it into what basically amounted to a new artform, no longer static and stately, but writhing with energy, packed with narrative elements, vibrant colours, and flowing, undulating compositions which guided the eye through complex streams of visual consciousness never before seen on the walls of the Midwest, or anywhere else. He died in 1975 at the age of 86, his kinship to his famous grandfather little noted outside his home state.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
27 June 1998

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