January 19, 2008

January 19 | Thomas Hart Benton

April 15, 1889 - January 19, 1975: Age 85

Thomas Hart Benton was supposed to be a politican, like his great-uncle, after whom he was named, and his father, Congressman Maecenas Benton. He did not turn out that way. His first job was as a cartoonist for a newspaper in Joplin, Missouri. He began his training as a serious artist at the Art Institute of Chicago, then moved to Paris, where he studied and met some of the greatest artists of the day.

During the First World War he worked as a draftsman for the navy, and his artistic style gained a realism that it never lost. But it was anything but superficial. According to Malcolm Forbes, a governor's beautiful wife asked him to paint her. "No," he said. "Your beauty is only skin deep. You wouldn't like it if I painted you."

His work was not fashionable; it was too realistic for the critics of the day, but the public loved it: so, too, does posterity. He is recognized today as one of America's greatest artists. If you have a chance to visit any of his works, the experience of seeing them in life is vastly richer than seeing them in a book or on the web. The largest collection is at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City (Benton was from Missouri) but there are works at many of the major galleries, including the Met in New York. Look for them, and visit them if you can.

His last work, a commission for the Country Music Foundation in Nashville, was called "The Sources of Country Music". He completed it ahead of schedule: being 85, he was worried he might die before finishing it. After dinner on January 19, 1975 he told his wife that he was going to go in and sign it. She found him collapsed on the floor of the studio, dead of a heart attack, paintbrush in hand. The work was unsigned.

Sources: Wikipedia; Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-A-Way, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1988.

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