Fig. 1: Thomas Hart Benton, Self Portrait With Rita, c. 1924. Oil on canvas, 49 x 39-3/8 in. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource, NY. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Antiques and Fine Art magazine; AFA is affiliated with Incollect.

Do you ever think about what makes a good story—for a painting? American artist Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) did. A century ago, Benton wanted to become the major American artist of his day. Although trained in Chicago and Paris and a member of the vanguard modern art community in New York around 1915, Benton had yet to make the kind of defining contribution to the art world that his ancestors Senator Thomas Hart Benton and John Charles Fremont had made to American political history. Casting about for opportunities, the ambitious painter looked to Fort Lee, New Jersey—the “first Hollywood.” He started working there on silent-era motion-picture productions in various artistic capacities, such as painting sets for director Rex Ingram. The appeal of the emerging motion picture industry and its influential new form of storytelling were clear to Benton. Epic themes such as cultural identity, westward expansion, tolerance, and the American Dream were worthy of movie screens—why not canvas (Fig. 1)?

Benton developed a cinematic painting style to communicate stories about American history and society as memorably as the movies. He learned to capture qualities intrinsic to motion pictures: the illusion of three-dimensional space; rhythmic motion; the glow of projected light (Fig. 2). To accomplish this, he revived the working methods of sixteenth-century Old Masters that paralleled the use of models and storyboard production techniques developed by the motion-picture industry. Benton sculpted clay models and lit them to highlight their three-dimensional forms. Using sketches from life and numerous studies of these dioramas, he produced large-scale paintings populated with highly sculptural, brightly lit characters meticulously arranged in energetic, rhythmic, and often symbolic compositions (Fig. 3). Benton also became renowned for his mural cycles such as America Today (1930–1931, The Metropolitan Museum of Art) that also evoke the immersive environment of the movie theater. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood explored, for the first time, how Benton’s early involvement with moviemaking affected his art and career.

Fig. 2: Thomas Hart Benton, People of Chilmark (Figure Composition), 1920. Oil on canvas, 65-5/8 x 77-5/8 in. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington. Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation. Photo by Cathy Carver. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Fig. 3: Thomas Hart Benton, Bootleggers, 1927. Egg tempera and oil on linen, mounted on Masonite panel, 68-3/4 x 74-3/4 in. Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Museum purchase with funds provided by Barbara B. Millhouse. Courtesy of Reynolda House Museum of American Art. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Fig. 4: Thomas Hart Benton, New England Editor, 1946. Oil and tempera on gessoed panel, 30 x 37 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection, Charles Henry Hayden Fund. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Fig. 5: Thomas Hart Benton, Portrait of a Musician, 1949. Casein, egg tempera, and oil varnish on canvas, mounted on wood panel, 48-1/2 x 32 in. Museum of Art and Archeology, University of Missouri-Columbia, Anonymous gift. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

In 1924, Benton started traveling regularly around the country in search of American subject matter. He drove, took buses and trains, and even walked across the land. Benton unabashedly transformed individuals into American types—Yankees (Fig. 4), bootleggers, (fig. 3) jazz musicians (Fig. 5), cotton pickers.

Benton went to Hollywood, California, for the first time in the summer of 1937; he was on assignment to portray the motion-picture industry for Life magazine. By this time, he was one of the most famous artists in America. He had appeared on the December 24, 1934, cover of Time magazine, and people knew him primarily as a public muralist, the nationally acclaimed artist of four monumental mural commissions completed between 1930 and 1936. His celebrity and talent led to important Hollywood commissions. Between 1939 and 1954, the great directors and producers of the day, John Ford, Walter Wanger, and Darryl F. Zanuck, among them, commissioned him to create artwork promoting their movies.

Included in the exhibition are Benton’s illustrations responding to John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s best selling and controversial novel, The Grapes of Wrath. For 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation, Benton completed five lithograph portraits of the novel’s main characters and the pivotal scene from the novel and the movie, the departure of the Joads from their Oklahoma home for California. These works appeared on movie posters and souvenir programs, and were reproduced on the movie’s marquee at the New York premiere. The movie commission inspired Limited Editions Club to hire Benton to illustrate its two-volume edition of Steinbeck’s instant American classic.  Complete with rawhide and grass-cloth binding and two-tone yellow and black illustrations, the publication, also on view in the exhibition, conjures the parched Oklahoma landscape.

Fig. 6: Thomas Hart Benton, The Kentuckian, 1954. Oil on canvas, 76-1/8 x 60-3/8 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Burt Lancaster. Photo courtesy of LACMA. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Fig. 7: Thomas Hart Benton, Shipping Out, 1942. Oil on canvas, 40 x 28-1/2 in. Private Collection.
Fig. 8: Thomas Hart Benton, The Lost Hunting Ground, 1927-28. From the mural series American Historical Epic, 1920-28. Oil on canvas, 60¼ x 42-1/8 in. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Bequest of the artist. Photo by Jamison Miller. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Benton’s promotional painting for the 1955 movie The Kentuckian played a key role in this examination of Benton’s art and career from thematic perspectives (Fig. 6). The canvas entered the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 1977 as a gift from Burt Lancaster, co-producer, director, and star of the film. In the painting, Lancaster appears as a manly American frontiersman clad in fringed buckskin. The classic Daniel Boone-type character inspired writers of the long-running animated television program The Simpsons to spoof the painting in the show’s second season.  The painting’s Hollywood connections prompted independent curator and historian Jake Milgram Wien to come to LACMA in 2006 to pitch his idea for an exhibition exploring Benton’s relationship to the American film industry. At the time, I was researching my doctoral dissertation on Benton’s American Historical Epic mural series. Our mutual interest in Benton as a visual storyteller of and for America was the impetus for the project.

Today, most people know little of Benton’s engagement with Hollywood; American Epics aimed to change that. The exhibition, the first major reevaluation of Benton’s art since 1989, features more than 100 works, and includes paintings, murals, drawings, prints, and illustrated books (Fig. 7). It compares Benton’s art from the 1920s through the 1960s with selected Hollywood movie clips to take viewers on a journey into America’s character, its strengths and weaknesses.

Benton’s lifelong engagement with the dominant national epic, westward expansion, is especially significant.  Beginning with this first major mural project American Historical Epic (1920–1928) (Fig. 8), Benton began challenging and reflecting the myths and realities of the West in his art. His revisionist approach to the past brought him into critical, playful, or sympathetic exchange with historical and cinematic traditions of telling and retelling national sagas. In travels throughout the West, Benton began to embrace the region as a place of harsh, breathtaking beauty and personal regeneration, as well as appreciate the region’s vulnerability to environmental threat (Fig. 9).

During his month-long sojourn in Tinseltown in August 1937, Benton spent most of his time on the lots of 20th Century Fox with full VIP access. Fascinated by what he referred to as the “machinery of the industry,” Benton’s scores of Hollywood drawings (Fig. 10) and “movie-mural” canvas Hollywood (Fig. 11) highlight the industry’s writers, directors, executives, actors, paparazzi, and skilled technicians, and reveal the artist’s intense interest in the behind-the-scenes moviemaking. The large-scale painting puts the viewer on the set with a scantily clad actress in the process of being made into an American goddess. She appears at the vortex of a whirlwind of male workers operating the machinery of lenses, lights and cameras. The daily activity of creating a mythic America surrounds her. Benton believed ordinary Americans played as vital a role in the production of myth as historical figures, or movie stars.

Fig. 9: Thomas Hart Benton, Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek, 1967. Polymer and tempera on Masonite panel, 30-1/2 x 38 in. Courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis, Indiana. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Fig. 10: Thomas Hart Benton, Thursday Night at the Cock-and-Bull. It’s the Maid’s Night Out, 1937. Ink, watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, 12-5/8 x 16-3/4 in. Private collection. Photo by Larry Ferguson Studio. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/ UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Fig. 11: Thomas Hart Benton, Hollywood, 1937-38. Tempera with oil on canvas, mounted on board, 56 x 84 in. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Bequest of the artist. Photo by Jamison Miller. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Benton started, but never finished, an essay about his first trip to Hollywood. His “Hollywood Journey,” was published for the first time in the catalogue for American Epics. The account suggests how attentive Benton remained throughout his career to Hollywood. “I made it my business while on ‘the lots’ to ask questions. I was not interested in particular Stars but in what went on all the time no matter what young ladies or young men were being blazzoned [sic] on the billboard headlines of the country. The first thing that I asked was ‘How do you get the stories for the movies?’ I wanted to begin at the beginning.” American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood also wanted to begin at the beginning. Going back to the artist’s early involvement with moviemaking inspired this exhibition about Benton’s efforts to make pictures about America.


Austen Barron Bailly is The George Putnam Curator of American Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. "American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton" was on view at the PEM June 6, 2015-September 7, 2015.


Related Article:  Click here to read about Thomas Hart Benton's black and white prints.