American Artist, Thomas Hart Benton
Doug A Mishler
Born in small town America (Neosho, Missouri) Benton always presented himself as a perfectly “ordinary man.” Yet his Huck Finn youth in Missouri gave way to an extraordinary life in Paris and New York. His complex paintings are often described as pure American, imparting “a sense of restless, teeming, tumultuous life.” This earthy tough artist offers wonderful insights into the American character.
Benton’s youth was pure Huck Finn. He played hokey, got in fights, hung around saloons, and lived wildly to the consternation of his very proper father and mother. While they wished for him a “Benton” career in law or politics, Tom’s only serious inclination was to draw (his first mural of a train was not critically well received since it was done in charcoal on the living room wall). After a disastrous year of military school, in 1898 Tom forced his parents into paying his way into the Chicago Art Institute. The cocky and unruly Benton was an impossible student and he washed out in Chicago as he would two years later in Paris. Yet he learned on his own and “from the moment I first struck my brush into a fat gob of color…I was going to be a painter. The rich sensual joy of smearing streaks of color…was too much for me.”
Tom first was enamored with the “Moderns” ideals of art for arts sake, of abstraction, of form and color over representation; “I am not to put things as they are, but rather more beautiful.” His restless quest for beauty led him from Paris to New York and Steiglitz, Marin, and the other modern artists. Yet their aesthetic left him feeling “adrift from the currents of our land, even contemptuous of them.” By 1920 Benton took up “social realist art,” capturing on canvas “the people’s history…their behaviors, their actions and the primary reality of everyday life and work.”
In 1935 after many controversies and fights Benton fled New York for Kansas City where he found his greatest success with his exceptional huge murals. As always he attracted controversy, this time over his being too realistic in his art and writing a too racy autobiography. He led the Regionalist movement thru the 1940s with Stuart Curry and Grant Wood, and made the Midwest the center of “real art in America.” Yet by 1945 Benton’s school was pushed aside by his protégée Jackson Pollock’s muscular modern abstractions.
Till he died in 1975 Benton continued to “create a visual record of the entire face of America.” In large measure he succeeded. This larger than life character offers us a splendid view of art, life, and American culture thru the entire 20th century.
Dr. Doug A. Mishler
For over 20 years Doug has been nationally recognized for bringing “history to life.” In addition to Nikita Khrushchev, Doug has presented figures from Jack Warner and Ernie Pyle to his first P. T. Barnum.
He has made literally hundreds of first person presentations as those above as well as Theodore Roosevelt, Stonewall Jackson Henry Ford and 14 other historical figures.
The voices in his head keep him busy, but he also makes time to direct and act and just started his own theatre company, all the while teaching history at the University of Nevada. Like his idol T. R., Doug believes there is still plenty of time to grow up and get a “real job”—but later!