Born in 1889 in Neosho, Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton chose to follow a career in art, rather than politics, where his father and great-uncle, for whom he was named, had achieved prominence. Benton went to Chicago at age 19, studying at the Art Institute of Chicago for two years before going to Paris. There he encountered the work of artists such as Cézanne and Matisse, and the work of the cubists and synchronists, a group of painters who emphasized color as the means of creating form and energetic movement in their canvases. Moving to New York in 1913, Benton was producing paintings that displayed the principles of modernism he absorbed in Paris.
Benton continued to paint in a modernist mode until 1918, when he served as a draftsman in the U.S. Navy during World War I. Spending two years drawing realistic sketches and illustrations affected his style so profoundly that Benton abandoned modernism in favor of a more naturalistic depiction of his subjects, primarily American scenes. Between 1920 and 1924, he journeyed through the South and Midwest, drawing and painting the scenes he observed. By the end of the decade, his art was focused entirely on America and its people, and Benton became a leading American Regionalist artist, rejecting modernism as “foreign.” Using dramatic contrasts of dark and light and strong, mobile forms, his canvases burst with energy. These vigorous works mainly celebrate regional, small-town life, but his subjects also include Biblical and mythological scenes, often populated by what were regarded as typical American figures.
In 1935, Benton moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where he spent the rest of his life, painting and teaching for many years at the Kansas City Art Institute. Benton’s art was well known for both its power and populist viewpoint, and he received numerous commissions for murals for public buildings, ranging from museums, to the Missouri State Capitol, to the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. He had just completed a mural for the Country Music Foundation in Nashville, Tennessee, at the time of his death in 1975.