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Thomas Hart Benton (1782—1858)


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Thomas Hart Benton


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(b Neosho, Mo., 15 Apr. 1889; d Kansas City, Mo., 19 Jan. 1975).

American painter, the great-nephew of a famous American statesman of the same name. In 1908–11 he lived in Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian and became a friend of the Synchromist Stanton Macdonald-Wright. After his return to the USA he settled in New York and painted in the Synchromist manner for some years, but having failed to win success working in an avant-garde style, he abandoned modernism around 1920 and gained fame as one of the leading exponents of Regionalism. His style became richly coloured and vigorous, with restlessly energetic rhythms and rather flat, sometimes almost cartoonish figures. His work included several murals, notably scenes of American life (1930–1) at the New School for Social Research in New York. In 1935 he left New York to become director of the City Art Institute and School of Design in Kansas City, Missouri, and he lived in that city for the rest of his life. When Regionalism declined in popularity in the 1940s Benton turned more to depicting scenes from American history, and some of his later work introduced American types into representations of Greek myths or biblical stories. Benton wrote two autobiographies, An Artist in America (1937) and An American in Art (1969). A passage from the second shows how completely he turned his back on the modernism he had espoused in his youth: ‘Modern art became, especially in its American derivations, a simple smearing and pouring of material, good for nothing but to release neurotic tensions. Here finally it became like a bowel movement or a vomiting spell.’ In view of these words, it is ironic that Benton was influential on Jackson Pollock, whom he taught at the Art Students League of New York in the early 1930s.

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