Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood

Today is the birthday of the great American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975).

Benton was the namesake and great grand-nephew of the five term Missouri Senator who was one of America’s prominent 19th century politicians, a Jacksonian Democrat and advocate for Manifest Destiny. The younger Benton was also the son of Colonel Maecenas Benton, a four term Missouri Congressman. Pressure must have been on follow a certain course in life (politics) but in spite of his name, Thomas Hart Benton followed his artistic bent with the encouragement of his mother, and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Académie Julian. In the spirit of his namesake, Benton’s vision was populist and patriotic, but in the spirit of his own times it also took a leftist turn and expressed a deep sympathy with the underdog. His visions were epic and heroic, but also questioning and thought-provoking. Rural America and history were frequent themes, but today we thought it especially fitting to share word about an exhibition we caught a couple of years ago at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, which we thought would be of especial interest to our readers. It was called American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood. 

The jumping off point for this study is Benton’s painting “Hollywood” painted in 1937 and 1938, initially on a commission for Life magazine. It depicts the shooting of the John Ford movie The Long Voyage Home based on O’Neil’s Sea Plays. He chose to concentrate on the apparatus behind the film.

As part of the project, he did this sketch entitled “Member of the Chorus” on the soundstage of a musical:

Benton also illustrated an edition of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). His image “The Departure of the Joads” was used on posters for John Ford’s 1940 film version:

The exhibition also covered the entirety of Benton’s career, relating his lifelong penchant for mythology to that of Hollywood. But there is much room for overlap. For example there’s his eponymous painting inspired by the 1954 film The Kentuckian, starring Burt Lancaster. If you didn’t know the backstory, it would simply seem a typical Benton scene:

Benton’s 1948 painting “Poker Night (From  A Streetcar Named Desire)” may well be one of his best known images. It was inspired by the Broadway version (the film didn’t come out until 1951), but movie producer David O. Selznick liked it so much he bought it for his wife.

As we all know, those with a penchant for mythologizing frequently also have an unfortunate bent for stereotype and demonization. When World War II arrived, Benton began depicting the Japanese enemy in less-than-human terms, exaggerating and misrepresenting their features, and doing the same with his depictions of African Americans, a tendency which paralleled Hollywood’s depictions of minorities on film. (While this section of the exhibition was certainly germane, it had less to do directly with Benton’s relationship to Hollywood. His problematic relationship to race is a topic for another day.) At any rate, those images are certainly available to look at online; no need to perpetuate them here today.

Show business was a subject Benton returned to throughout his life. In fact, he died while working on this mural, “The Sources of Country Music”, in 1975:

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