Thomas Hart Benton: American Regionalism

A small oil on panel, ‘The High Plains,’ 4½ by 6½ inches, earned $180,000 in November 2015 at Santa Fe Art Auction. Photo courtesy of Santa Fe Art Auction and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Bold and expressive, Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings and lithographs tell the story of America in a way few artists have managed to capture so eloquently. His elegantly detailed and realistic paintings depict the everyman moving through life in such works as his 10-panel mural America Today to his powerful depictions of the horrors of war in The Year of Peril series.

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) became one of the leading Regionalist artists in the American scene movement. With his Midwestern sensibilities firmly in place thanks to his upbringing in Missouri, he helped establish the dominance of American art and wrest focus away from European art. He became quite an influential figure, inspiring many artists who would come after him. One of his most famous students was Jackson Pollock.

“He was certainly one of the most important American painters of what is loosely called the American scene,” said Gillian Blitch, co-director of Santa Fe Art Auction, noting that the American Scene movement was really a movement that is characterized by American painters wanting to break free of the European schools that had dominated the late 19th century.

Early on, Benton was inspired by European Old Masters, then Modernism and abstraction but he came to adopt a more naturalistic style to become a Regionalist painter. His artistic legacy owes much to his unique manner of depicting his subjects with stylized and fluid figures and forms, his passion for presenting ordinary people often performing ordinary tasks and his striking realism.

‘The Water Story,’ a tempera on gessoed panel, was sketched for a large mural for a drug store. It sold for $97,500 at Burchard Galleries in April 2016. Photo courtesy of Burchard Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

The Golden Age of Hollywood was simultaneous to the heyday of his art career and Benton’s works can be likened to cinematic masterpieces, albeit on canvas instead of film. He utilized many of the same themes as the movies: mythology and storytelling, bold characters and an innate talent for creating epic moments in his art.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, which co-organized the 2015 exhibition, “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood” explored the intriguing relationships between Benton’s artmaking and the art of film and how both have shaped America’s national identity.

“Benton developed a painting style that was cinematic in process, composition and content to express his interest in American people and American stories, broadly defined. His paintings and murals melded elements intrinsic to recent motion pictures with centuries-old European painting traditions that resulted in visually dynamic narratives. These qualities, in addition to Benton’s celebrity status as a nationally acclaimed artist, made his work especially alluring to both the public and Hollywood,” said Stephanie Fox Knappe, the Samuel Sosland Curator of American Art at the Nelson-Atkins, in a press release for the museum’s exhibition.

Gillian Blitch said Benton and the American Scene artists gave American art its identity and his oeuvre clearly reflects this. “He became very focused on the working man and the reality largely based on the Midwest where he was from,” she said. “He famously did some remarkable murals that dominated—and continue to be in—very important places.”

‘A Social History of Missouri …,’ a mural study for the Jefferson City Capitol, tempera and pencil on board, 1935, brought $400,000 in November 2015 at Dallas Auction Gallery. Photo courtesy of Dallas Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Among notable examples are his A Social History of the State of Missouri murals in the Missouri State Capitol, which he finished in December 1936. These works are infused with a Midwest flavor overall as well as a strong sense of Missouri mythology, influenced by his childhood here. The 10-panel mural, America Today, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was another crowning achievement. Ironically, despite the fame he achieved during his lifetime, his place in the pantheon of American art was later largely forgotten until the 2015 exhibition, the first major survey of his works in over 20 years.

“His vision of America, the reality of America, became sort of symbolic and characterized the way America was to be from the 1930s onward,” Blitch said. “Harry Truman famously referred to Thomas Hart Benton as the ‘best damn painter in America.’”

Benton was a prolific lithographer. His signed litho, ‘The Race,’ sold for $15,000 at Donny Malone Auctions in April 2018. Photo courtesy of Donny Malone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Collectors seek out both his paintings and his lithographs, of which there are many. “He became so symbolic of the period of change in American painting that established his own identity that all of his work continues to be very desirable,” she said. While his paintings usually bring six- and seven-figure sums, new collectors can find him accessible through his lithographs. “He was a prolific lithographer and you can get signed lithos, they start at $2,000 to $3,000,” she added. “Of course, they go up. Certain images are more desirable; the good, signed, somewhat rare images can go for $20,000.”

The highest-grossing Thomas Hart Benton painting on LiveAuctioneers’ database was in October 2016 when Dallas Auction Gallery sold Roasting Ears, from Dallas collector Sam Wyly, that hammered for $1.6 million. Of the 1938 egg tempera and oil on canvas, Scott Shuford, president of Dallas Auction Gallery, told the media at the time that, “We were not surprised by the amount of interest or the result as this is a wonderful example of how Benton was at the forefront of the American realist modern art movement.”

‘Roasting Ears,’ a 1938 egg tempera and oil on board, sold for $1.6 million at Dallas Auction Gallery in October 2016. Photo courtesy of Dallas Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

In its catalog description for that painting, Benton himself is quoted, saying said he was “fairly obsessed with America—the Mississippi region, the Ozarks, and the places where I can see lonely plowmen, Cotton pickers, river Boatmen and ramshackle houses that never were much good to begin with. I like to get out in my car and drive.”

This painting also is historically important as Benton was noted for portraying the hard life of African-American subjects in the South without stereotype, perhaps the first major artist to do so.

Benton’s work endures today as its American imagery remains timeless. He has forever shaped American art and, in his time, his art caused many people to reevaluate the way they viewed America itself.

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