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Thomas Hart Benton (1889 - 1975)

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Introduction

Thomas Hart Benton was a major American artist from Missouri. His paintings are famous for showing ordinary people doing common things. He drew and painted portraits, landscapes, and scenes of people at work in farms, factories, and busy cities. His best-known works are public murals, or scenes on the inside walls of buildings. Benton’s murals are lively records of life in America from pioneer times onward.

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Early Years

Neosho, Missouri Neosho, Missouri Neosho, Missouri, hometown of Thomas Hart Benton, around 1900.

[Newton County Historical Society]
Thomas Hart Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri, on April 15, 1889. He was the oldest child of Maecenas Eason Benton Maecenas Eason Benton (1848 – 1924)

[SHS 006386]
and Elizabeth Wise Benton. He was named after his great-great-uncle, Thomas Hart Benton, the famous Missouri senator. Tom’s father was a successful lawyer. He served as U.S. attorney for Missouri and was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1896.

Young Thomas Hart Benton loved to draw. While his mother encouraged him to draw, his father did not. When the Bentons moved to Washington, DC in 1896, Tom loved the art he saw in the capital city. He really liked seeing the Library of Congress murals. They made him want to become a mural painter or muralist. Tom also learned how to make cartoon like figures, or caricatures, by reading cartoons in the Washington Post.

In 1904 Maecenas Benton was defeated, and the family returned to Missouri. Thomas Hart Benton grew restless
Newspaper accounts of the day present Benton as an accident-prone, perhaps overly adventurous, young man Newspaper accounts of the day present Benton as an accident-prone, perhaps overly adventurous, young man.
The Neosho Daily News reported that Benton had a close call with a train.


[Newton County Historical Society]
Newspaper accounts of the day present Benton as an accident-prone, perhaps overly adventurous, young man The Neosho Daily News reported on August 15, 1907, that Benton had a serious accident while swimming.

[Newton County Historical Society]
in Neosho and left home in 1906. He took a job as staff artist for a local newspaper in Joplin, Missouri. From there he went to Illinois to study painting for one year at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Benton wanted to study art in Europe. In 1908 he moved to Paris, France Paris, France, around 1909.

[SHS 027301]
, and took art classes. Soon Benton began to study on his own. He spent half his time inside the art museum drawing important paintings. He spent the rest of his time outside, painting what interested him. He tried different styles of painting. He found out that he liked using bright colors to show real people in real places doing a variety of activities.
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An Artist for America

From about 1912 to 1935, Thomas Hart Benton lived and worked in New York City. He painted during the summer months on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. He married Rita Piacenza in 1922. Together, they had two children, Thomas Piacenza (T. P.) and Jessie.


In 1924, Benton came back to Missouri to visit his father who was very sick. This visit changed Benton’s life. His interests became clearer. He took pride in his Midwestern roots and began painting ordinary Americans not often shown in art. He started making drawing trips that took him across America. He visited steel mills, coal mines, and logging camps. He floated down rivers in canoes. He watched workers picking cotton in the South. He observed everything he could about ordinary American life during the 1920s and 1930s and recorded what he saw in his sketches. He then used his sketches as the basis for his paintings and murals. Benton built small clay models Study Model for the Mural ‘Jacques Cartier and the St. Lawrence’ at the New York Power Authority, Massena, New York.

[Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Missouri-Columbia]
, or maquettes, for each painting. Then he painted his scenes while looking at his clay models.

Lucile Bluford as a baby Embarkation, c. 1942 After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Benton painted many images about the war.

[© T. H. Benton and R. P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY]
Thomas Hart Benton became the leader of a movement in American art called regionalismBenton with fellow regionalist painters Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry in Benton’s Kansas City home.

[SHS 017152]
. He based his art on personal observation.
Benton sketching by a river Benton sketching by a river.

[SHS 009589]
Benton sketching in the mountains. Benton sketching in the mountains.

[Missouri Department of Natural Resources]
He showed working people in all regions of America, including poor, rural areas. Benton called attention to problems that he thought all Americans should know about. Benton’s style of painting made common people
Instructor, 1940, by Thomas Hart Benton Instructor, 1940, by Thomas Hart Benton.

[© T. H. Benton and R. P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY]
The Music Lesson, 1943, by Thomas Hart Benton The Music Lesson, 1943, by Thomas Hart Benton

[© T. H. Benton and R. P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY]
into heroes. He gave them big bodies with lots of muscles and painted them using deep, rich colors. Benton also painted villains into his pictures. The villains were usually rich and powerful people Benton did not respect because they got ahead by taking advantage of others.

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Benton's Legacy

Self Portrait, 1972, by Thomas Hart Benton Self Portrait, 1972, by Thomas Hart Benton Self Portrait, 1972, by Thomas Hart Benton.

[© T. H. Benton and R. P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY]
Not everyone liked Benton's work. Some people thought he was too outspoken about politics and art. Many Americans, however, truly admired
The artist at Thomas Hart Benton Day in Neosho, Missouri, on May 12, 1962 The artist at “Thomas Hart Benton Day” in Neosho, Missouri, on May 12, 1962.

[SHS 006655]
The artist at Thomas Hart Benton Day in Neosho, Missouri, on May 12, 1962 Benton with his wife, Rita, during “Thomas Hart Benton Day” in Neosho, Missouri, on May 12, 1962.

[SHS 003237]
Benton’s work and ideas. Various organizations hired him to create public art. One of his most famous murals is A Social History of Missouri.
Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned in 1935 to paint murals for the Missouri House of Representatives’ Lounge in the State Capitol in Jefferson City. Benton completed the murals entitled A Social History of Missouri in 1937 Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned in 1935 to paint murals for the Missouri House of Representatives’ Lounge in the State Capitol in Jefferson City. Benton completed the murals entitled A Social History of Missouri in 1937.

[Missouri State Archives]
Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned in 1935 to paint murals for the Missouri House of Representatives’ Lounge in the State Capitol in Jefferson City. Benton completed the murals entitled A Social History of Missouri in 1937 Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned in 1935 to paint murals for the Missouri House of Representatives’ Lounge in the State Capitol in Jefferson City. Benton completed the murals entitled A Social History of Missouri in 1937.

[SHS 006626]
Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned in 1935 to paint murals for the Missouri House of Representatives’ Lounge in the State Capitol in Jefferson City. Benton completed the murals entitled A Social History of Missouri in 1937 Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned in 1935 to paint murals for the Missouri House of Representatives’ Lounge in the State Capitol in Jefferson City. Benton completed the murals entitled A Social History of Missouri in 1937.

[SHS 016998]
Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned in 1935 to paint murals for the Missouri House of Representatives’ Lounge in the State Capitol in Jefferson City. Benton completed the murals entitled A Social History of Missouri in 1937 Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned in 1935 to paint murals for the Missouri House of Representatives’ Lounge in the State Capitol in Jefferson City. Benton completed the murals entitled A Social History of Missouri in 1937.

[SHS 006633]
It is in the state capitol in Jefferson City, Missouri.
In September of 1935, Benton moved to Kansas City, Missouri. He lived there and worked in his studio
Benton in his Kansas City studio Benton in his Kansas City studio.

[SHS 006627]
Benton in his Kansas City studio Benton in his Kansas City studio before the preliminary painting for the Truman Library mural, 1960. Benton’s mural clay model, or marquette, is visible in the background.

[Gerald Massie, Kansas City Star, SHS 003238]
until his death on January 19, 1975. He kept painting to the end of his life. His paintings and murals can be seen in books “Different kinds of moonlight change the shape of the river,” an illustration created by Thomas Hart Benton to accompany the 1944 edition of Mark Twain’s semi-autobiographical book, Life on the Mississippi.

[© Limited Editions Club]
as well as museums and public buildings across America.

Text by Carlynn Trout with research assistance by Jillian Hartke

Meets Show-Me Standards SS: 2, 6, 7; 4th grade GLE 2a.A.

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References and Resources

For more information about Thomas Hart Benton's life and career, see the following resources:

Society Resources

The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about Thomas Hart Benton in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets. All links will open in a new tab.


  • Articles from the Missouri Historical Review
  • Articles from the Newspaper Collection
    • “Benton, Beloved Muralist, Dies at 85.” Independence Examiner. January 20, 1975. p. 1.
    • “Benton Thought of Southwest Missouri as ‘Home Country.’” Joplin Globe. January 21, 1975. p. 1A.
    • “Perspective: Thomas Hart Benton.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat. January 21, 1975. p. 8B.
    • “Thomas Hart Benton dies.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat. January 20, 1975. p. 13A.
    • “Thomas Hart Benton dies late Sunday night.” Neosho Daily News. . January 20, 1975. p. 1.
    • “Thomas Hart Benton, 85, Dies; Era of American Painting Ends.” Kansas City Times. January 20, 1975. p. 1A.
  • Books and Articles
    • Adams, Henry. Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. [REF F508.1 B447a]
    • Benton, Thomas Hart. An American In Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1969. [REF F508.1 B447be1]
    • Benton, Thomas Hart. An Artist in America. 4th rev. ed. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983. [REF F508.1 B447]
    • Christensen, Lawrence O., William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 61-64. [REF F508 D561]
    • Fath, Creekmore, comp. The Lithographs of Thomas Hart Benton. New ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979. [REF F508.1 B447be2 1979]
    • Hurt, R. Douglas, and Mary K. Dains, eds. Thomas Hart Benton: Artist, Writer, and Intellectual. Columbia: The State Historical Society of Missouri, 1989. [REF F508.1 B447st]
    • Symington, Stuart. “Thomas Hart Benton—Painter, Sculptor, Raconteur, and Author.” Congressional Record; Proceedings and Debates of the 94th Congress, First Session, Senate. v. 121, no. 8 (January 27, 1975) pp. S 952–954.
  • Manuscript Collection
    • Brookfield, Dutton (1917-1979), Papers, 1844-1979 (C2732)
      This collection contains the business, political, and personal papers and photographs of a community leader from Kansas City, Missouri. References to Benton can be found throughout the collection.
    • Morrison, I.G., Papers, 1940 (C2174)
      The Morrison Papers contain copies of a letter written by Benton and a lecture given by I.G. Morrison on Benton's murals in the Missouri State Capitol. Morrison presented description, history, and symbolism of the murals. Benton defined the purpose of art and expressed approval of Morrison's lecture.
    • State Historical Society of Missouri, Audio Cassette Collection, 1976-2000 (C3963)
      The State Historical Society of Missouri Audio Cassette Collection is a collection of miscellaneous interviews, lectures, and speeches collected over the years. Audio cassettes 1-3 and 33 contain information about Benton.
  • Other
    • Thomas Hart Benton Mural Techniques. Video. Produced by the City of Joplin, 1999. [Video Collection]

Outside Resources

These links, which open in another window, will take you outside the Society's Website. The Society is not responsible for the content of the following Websites:


Historic Missourians: Thomas Hart Benton
Thomas Hart BentonThomas Hart Benton (1889 – 1975).

[SHS 006654]

Thomas Hart Benton

Born: April 15, 1889
Died: January 19, 1975 (age 85)
Categories: Artists
Region of Missouri: Southwest
Missouri Hometown: Neosho
Related Biographies:
Senator Thomas Hart Benton
Marbut's Signature