*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.
Thomas Hart Benton was born into a prominent political family on April 15, 1889 in Neosho, Missouri. He was named for a great uncle who had served 5 terms in Congress, first serving when Missouri gained statehood. His father was a lawyer and four term Congressman who had similar political aspirations for his son. His son, however, liked to draw and did not fall in line with his father’s plans. He dropped out of school at age 17 and took a job as a cartoonist at the Joplin American newspaper. His father, apparently thinking to “discipline” the art out of him, sent him to a military academy for a year before relenting and allowing the son to study at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1907. He then studied at the Académie Julian in Paris for several years before returning to the United States and settling in New York.
At this time, Benton had not yet really found “his style.” He was exposed to impressionism, Japanese prints, Fauvism, Diego Rivera, and a host of other artists and styles. During World War I, he served as a draftsman in the U.S. Navy and later credited “his military duties for shifting attention in his art work back to the objective world” (World War II, p. 9).
“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. … Thomas Hart Benton became the leader of a movement in American art called regionalism. He based his art on personal observation. 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 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.”
One of Benton’s first opportunities to make a “big splash” came in December 1932. The opening of the 1933 World’s Fair/Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago was less than six months away, and the state of Indiana had no firm plans for its exhibit. “On December 19, 1932, the commission [Indiana Commission for the Century of Progress Exposition] gathered to hear the last-minute proposal of Colonel Richard Lieber, director of Indiana’s Department of Conservation, who had been recently appointed by Governor Harry G. Leslie to take charge of the “lead-ass” committee. Instead of the usual state fair display of threshing machines and farm produce, Lieber proposed something more dramatic and artistic: a 250-foot mural depicting the state’s accomplishments. He also recommended the one man with the experience, vision, and stamina to complete such an ambitious project in such a short time: Thomas Hart Benton” (Foster, p. 7).
“The commission quickly voted to accept the proposal, knowing that Benton needed sufficient time to research, create and paint the murals by the fair’s opening in May. Three days later, a contract was signed giving Benton “complete freedom” for the murals, including “the composition of the overall narrative and the ‘realistic’ treatment of social facts.” Lieber learned of Benton’s previous work through a mutual acquaintance, Indianapolis-born architect Thomas Hibben, who designed Indiana’s Lincoln Memorial for the Dept. of Conservation. The two had talked about possible exhibit ideas for the fair. Hibben suggested the New York muralist. Lieber, who had painting experience himself and had also been a newspaper art critic, researched Benton’s work before making his pitch. The choice caused controversy, first because Benton was not a Hoosier. He was born in Missouri, trained in Chicago and Paris, and lived in The Big Apple. People worried that he would “make Indiana look like a boob,” and cater to the various stereotypes of Midwesterners. Many said that such a high-profile project should have gone to one of Indiana’s own respected artists, especially considering the use of State funds.”
The Hall, or Court, of States building would occupy prime lake-front real estate and be generally V-shaped, with Indiana’s portion right at the top of the V. The ceilings would be 28 feet high, enabling the 12 feet tall mural to be hung 10 ft. from the floor and have special lighting. The mural itself was 232 feet in length.
“Benton started by learning as much as he could about the history, landscape and people of Indiana at the Indiana State Library, then he traveled 3,000 miles with Department of Conservation staff, visiting state parks and historic sites. He completed sketches everywhere he went and many of the sites and people he met along the way: … Fort Vincennes, Spring Mill, Corydon and Paoli can be identified in the murals. Benton divided the murals into two themes: industrial and cultural, with each theme running chronologically along opposite sides of the room. The subject matter for the Industrial Panels ranges from early Native American potters, through the pioneer age, the evolution of river transportation to the railroads, and life on the farm up through the gas and steel booms in central and northwest Indiana. The Cultural Panels begin with the Mound-builders, follow the development of small farm communities into larger cities, the evolution of early schools into large universities and the various social issues facing Indiana and the nation at large. These included the Civil War, women’s rights, entertainment, labor unrest and racial tension. Cultural panels 8, 10 and 11 show a variety of entertainment: the saloon; the state fair, complete with snake charmer; William Forsyth, artist and teacher, painting at an easel; the circus; Lieber planting trees in a state park; auto racing; and Indiana’s favorite pastime, basketball.”
Back from his all-around-Indiana trip, Benton returned to Indianapolis and studio space in an old dance hall and set to work with a crew of assistants composed of local artists. “The pace was manic, with 2600 square feet of mural (38 square feet per day…) to be completed in less than three months. The panels, constructed inside Germania Hall [the aforementioned studio], were too big to be carried down the stairs; once finished they were removed through a twenty-foot high slit created by dismantling two windows and a section of brick wall in between. Lowered on a derrick two floors to the street, the murals were loaded on a special truck by white-gloved workers and shipped to Chicago, where an unexpected low bridge forced a hundred-and-six-mile detour. In the wee hours of the morning of May 19, one of the gates of Northwestern University had to be dismantled to get the truck through the grounds.” (Foster, p. 19-20) After what seems like a comedy of errors, the murals were installed in time for the June opening of the exposition. Ironically, due to excessive rain in May, the fair opened with none of the state halls completed except for Indiana’s!
Here’s how the murals looked installed, and what follows are close-ups of some of the sections.
At the end of 1933, Indiana’s participation in the 1933 World’s Fair/Century of Progress Exposition came to an end. The murals came down, and although various ideas of where they should be displayed next were floated, they eventually ended up in storage in the horse barn at the state fairgrounds. This might have been the end of the story, were it not for the man who became the 11th president of Indiana University and later its chancellor, Herman B Wells. (NOTE: that’s not a typographical error in his name—there is no period after the letter B because it is not an abbreviation. His middle name is, literally, B.) In 1937, when Wells was acting president, plans were underway for the construction of an auditorium on the Bloomington campus. Wells was familiar with the murals and decided he’d like them to grace the new auditorium. Clearly a savvy man who had done his homework, “Wells paid a call on the current governor, Cliff Townsend. “He was a good friend of mine—but he was a farmer—and I said ‘I understand those murals are out at the state fairgrounds.’ ‘Oh!’ he said, ‘Yes, they’re in the horse barn and they’re in the way!’ And I said ‘How about giving them to the university and we get ‘em out of there?’ ‘Well, that’d be great!’ said Townsend. ‘Would ya take ‘em?’” (Foster, p. 25)
With the exception of 4 smaller segments, all 26 panels were used at the university. Sixteen central panels were placed in the auditorium’s lobby. Two of the murals with business themes were installed in nearby Woodburn Hall, at the time the new center of the business school, and the rest in another space within the auditorium. Benton himself came to campus in October 1940 to assist with the installation and retouching of the murals.
This picture, from University Archives and Special Collections’ Thomas Mueller photographic collection, shows a portion of the Indiana University auditorium installation. Visible on the left are panels 4-9 of the industrial panels: Home Industry, Internal Improvements, Civil War, Expansion, The Farmer Up and Down, and Coal, Gas, Oil, Brick. Only partially visible at the rear of the photo are panels 9 and 8 of the cultural panels: Colleges and City Life, and Leisure and Literature.
The panel shown to the left here is no. 10 of the cultural panels: Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press. This panel was one of the most controversial, both in its original installation and in the re-installation at Indiana University. In the center of the picture is the clear image of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1933 protesters wanted this panel to be excluded so as not to embarrass the state, to bury the sins of the past. But the influence of the Klan within Indiana is undeniable. “As many as forty percent of all native-born white men in the state paid dues to join between 1921 and 1928. As the largest social organization in Indiana, the Klan loomed over all state politics, briefly controlling most state and local offices at its peak of power in 1924.” (Foster, p. 72) As only a small portion of this entire panel, it’s clear that Benton intended to confront the evil and pay homage to those who ended its reign of terror. In the foreground of the panel the power of the press is depicted by the reporter, printer, and photographer. “Relentless coverage in the Indianapolis Times, detailing charges of bribery and corruption, won the paper a Pulitzer Prize. When the state’s KKK leader was jailed for murder in 1925, his testimony from prison brought down both the governor and mayor. Victory over the Klan seems secure in the vignette at the center, where a white nurse tends both black and white children at Indianapolis City Hospital (now Wishard). The importance of the Klan in Indiana’s history remains disturbing to this day; more significant is Benton’s foreground message of “unmasking” and tolerance” (Foster, p. 72).
The mural has faced numerous protests at Indiana University, too, including some vandalism. Generally, the university has defended its placement on the educational grounds of free speech, historical fact, and facilitating debate. The mural is in Woodburn 100, a lecture hall and classroom. (This setting is shown here at the left.) On September 29, 2017, Indiana University moderated its stance a little in this statement by Executive Vice President and Provost Laurel Robel, quoted in part here: “The murals cannot be moved. Benton painted them using egg tempera paint, which has become extremely fragile over time. Moreover, the space in Woodburn 100 was designed specifically to house the two panels that now hang there, and they were installed in such a way that moving them would almost certainly cause irreparable damage. Nor does the notion of covering them with a curtain accord with our responsibility as stewards of this precious art. Covering the murals feels like censorship and runs counter to the expressed intent of the artist to make visible moments in history that some would rather forget. Furthermore, covering the murals during class periods would leave them hidden for the vast majority of time and create a situation in which the decision to uncover them could be used by some as a symbolic act in support of the very ideology the murals are intended to criticize. However, there is nothing sacrosanct about using Woodburn 100 as a classroom. While I believe that we can and should educate the public and our community about the murals, that intellectual work can and should take place in a context that does not involve the captive audience of classes devoted to other subjects. Therefore, Woodburn 100 will convert to other uses beginning in the spring semester 2018.” (You can follow this hyperlink to read the entire statement or access it via the link in the list of sources consulted at the end of this blog.)
Thomas Hart Benton went on to paint other historically-themed murals, including one for the Missouri capital in Jefferson City in 1936, Old Kansas City (1955-1956), Jacques Cartier Discovers the Indians and The Seneca Discover the French in Massena, NY, Father Hennepin at Niagara Falls (1959-1961), and Independence and the Opening of the West for the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri (1959-1962). In 1942, in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, he created a series of 10 paintings entitled The Year of Peril. Below is the one entitled Embarkation – Prelude to Death.
In 1943-1944, Abbot Laboratories commissioned Benton to create 25 pieces for the U.S. Navy. “He pursued, once again, the life and the look of his favorite subjects, the rank and file, people with undistinguished faces and unremembered names, workers in the shipbuilding yard and the crewmen inside a submarine. … Because [these] drawings were not intended for public viewing, they assumed the character of a diary entry—simple and sincere. … The drama in these images is not personal. Human psychology plays a minimal role. Benton’s subjects carry out modest activities—they eat and sleep, but mostly they work. Drama is found in the launching of a ship, the lurching of a vessel in high seas, a stream of light invading the dismal recesses of the submarine. These works avoid great moments in history and great individuals. Benton chose, instead, to depict team ventures. He conveyed the tempo and the look of the war effort as a series of acts of labor carried out in defense plants, naval bases, shipyards, coordinated efforts of construction and training and battle rehearsal. This is Benton’s story of World War II” (World War II…, p. 11, 13-14).
Thomas Hart Benton died on January 18, 1975, the evening of the day that he finished the work pictured here, The Sources of Country Music for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, TN. He was known to be quite opinionated and pugnacious, and would probably not care about the criticisms of his work, but he might be glad to know we’re still talking about him today!
If you’re interested in learning more about Benton’s Indiana murals, look at this video: https://youtu.be/ibbNVNvrlhs. It’s a little long, but it does tell the story quite well.
Tangible resources held by Rice Library:
Foster, Kathleen A. Thomas Hart Benton and the Indiana murals. Bloomington: Indiana University Art Museum in association with Indiana University Press, 2000. University Archives and Special Collections, Regional Collection ND237.B47 A76 2000
Thomas Hart Benton [videorecording] Alexandria, Va.?] : PBS Home Video, c2004. DVDs ND237.B47 T56 2004
World War II through the eyes of Thomas Hart Benton. San Antonio, TX: Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, [1991?] University Archives and Special Collections, Special Collection NC139.B45 A4 1991