Introduction
Thomas Hart Benton
Stuart Davis
Ben Shahn
John Steuart Curry

Grant Wood

A sketch from Hart Benton's early years as an illustrator. This famous fence painting scene is from Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The distortion of the muscles and proportionsof the figures are characteristic of Hart Benton's first job as a cartoonist for the Joplin Museum in Missouri.

The sketch to the left is one of Benton's preliminary sketches for the Culture Panel segment of the Independence and the Opening of the West murals. Known commonly as the Independence Murals, they are one of Benton's most renowned projects and are part of the Truman Library in Missouri. Benton began the Independence Murals in 1959 and completed them in 1962; the distinct contrast between the angularity of his initial figure sketches (see Tom Sawyer illustration above) gives way later in his career to a less stylized, more refined representation of the human form as seen in the Independence Murals.

The finished Independence Murals consist of a series of panels addressing different scenes of the American west. The Cultural Panels are broken down to capture three key topics of social change: colleges and city life, leisure and literature, and the changing role of women. The pencil sketch image above the finished panel corresponds to the preliminary plans for the "Colleges and City Life" panel.
This photo, another panel of the Independence Murals, captures the scale of the murals.
Score Another for the Subs depicts a World War II scene that solidified Benton's characterization as an artist committed to portraying a specifically American history. Though Benton was often grouped with leftist intellectual circles, he also contributed a series of war propaganda paintings after the outbreak of WWII. The vivid colors and skewed perspective are characteristic of Benton's style that became his trademark in later years; Benton's dramatic use of the Renaissance technique of chiaroscuro, the heavy contrast between light and dark, is also captured in this painting.

 

The Wreck of the Ole '97 is one of Benton's landmark paintings. Completed in 1943, this painting captures the tension between the industrialization of the American west and the disappearance of the Midwestern rural tradition that Benton sought to record. Benton spent many years in Kansas from his stint at the Kansas City Art Institute until his death in 1975, and rural, Midwestern imagery dominates the majority of his later works. This work also represents his desire to represent the common American experience, which, for many, was the displacement of rural farmers in the wake of the rapid industrialization of the Midwest during the WWII era.

Benton's desire to legitimize American history and the "American" experience in the international art world led him to draw on the power of Greek mythology in this modern rendering of Persephone (1939). The tale Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest, centers around Hades, the god of the underworld, who covets the young, beautiful Persephone. Hades eventually spirits Persephone away to his underground kingdom against the wishes of her mother Demeter. In response, Demeter blights the crops and brings a famine upon the world of men, until Hades is forced to allow Persephone to return to the world of the living for half the year under the agreement that she returns to the underworld for the other half. The Greeks used this myth to explain the changing seasons; summer and spring are the times when Persephone abides with Demeter and the earth prospers, and during fall and winter Demeter mourns the loss of her daughter by making the earth infertile. Benton draws on this powerful myth to frame an image of the older, dying generation coveting the promise of youth and the new American generation.