Born in Neosha, Missouri, in 1889, Thomas Hart Benton was a painter, illustrator, and lithographer. The son of a Congressman, Benton first studied art in Washington, D.C., where he was inspired by the sundry murals in the Capitol’s public buildings. In 1907, he enrolled for a year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and visited Paris the following summer. He studied until early 1911 at the Académie Julian and independently thereafter.
Benton rejected the academic methods to which he was exposed in Paris. His interests seem to have focused on the Impressionist and Pointillist movements. In Paris he was introduced to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera as well as a number of fellow American artists, such as John Marin and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, both of whom would have a lasting influence on Benton. Through such friendships, Benton adopted an abstract approach to color, which he used to express emotion and mood rather than to depict reality. He also read and admired the French artist Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine, who espoused the idea of the artist’s responsibility to the social milieu over the more popular modernist attitude of ‘art for art’s sake.’
Benton returned to the United States in 1912. After participating in the Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters in 1916, he rejected modernism and the avant-garde art of the early 1920s in favor of an approach that became known as “Regionalism,” in which commonplace scenes of small-town American life were painted in a popular, at times even nostalgic, style. The rich colors, energetic compositions, and childlike drawing style which Benton began to employ at this time would become signature elements of his work.
In the early 1930s, he began teaching at the Art Students League of New York, where abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock was one of his pupils. A 1934 Time magazine cover featuring a portrait by Benton garnered unprecedented acclaim for the forty-five-year-old artist and the Regionalist movement. In 1935, Benton became the director of the City Art Institute and School of Design in Kansas City, Missouri, where he spent the remainder of his life.
Over the course of his career, Benton continually rejected the orthodoxies of modernism, which he perceived as elitist, with the sincere hope of producing art that was thoroughly “American.” Benton died in 1975.