Thomas Hart Benton,
an American Regionalist artist, was born in Neosho, Missouri in 1889.
At an early age, Benton looked beyond his storied political familial roots
to a career as an artist. Benton was treated to an extensive education
that involved many travels. He studied at the Chicago Art Institute and
the Academie Julien in Paris where he developed his new style. His prominence
in the world of art began to take shape in the early 1920's and 30's.
Sidney Larson, an artist and friend, recalled, "He took on the high and
mighty of politics, art education, criticism, or, simply, privilege."
Evident in his early works was a leftist political philosophy much like
his fathers, a member of the House of Representatives from 1894 to 1904.
They shared an opposition of eastern bankers, railroad magnates, and industrial
capitalists. At one point, Benton was even a card carrying communist,
allowing secret meetings to be held in his home. Benton's great love,
however, was the common man and his plight. His paintings delight in glorifying
this backbone of the American consciousness. Known as a great mural painter,
Benton created images for the Missouri Capitol Building, the New School
for Social Research in New York City, the Power Authority of the State
of New York, and the Indiana Capitol Building.
home of the Truman Library, held a storied past that charmed Benton. Founded
in the early nineteenth century, Independence found its way into American
folklore by being known as the last city before the frontier. By the 1830's,
it was a bustling center of trade for the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails.
The 1849 Gold Rush in California only confirmed its place in history as
an icon of the American West. Independence was no stranger to the blood,
sweat, and tears that Benton often painted. When confronted with the idea
of painting a mural in the Truman Library, Benton immediately began to
conceptualize an idea for "Independence and the Opening of the West" that
would focus on the history of Independence. Benton hoped to generalize
the history by depicting no particular events or people, excepting Truman.
Truman, however, would have nothing to do with a project that would glorify
him personally and requested that he not be put in the picture. After
some bantering with President Truman over who should be depicted and other
ideas, that included Jeffersonian Democracy, Benton's idea was accepted.
Depicting three decades, 1817 to 1847, the mural successfully paints a
conceptual view of the founding of Independence.
Benton began work
on the mural in early 1960, three years after the founding of the Truman
Library. Out of the mural, a deep and lasting friendship emerged between
two of Missouri's most famous sons. In one account, Benton, high on the
scaffolding, was listening to the comments of his chief critic and patron
below, President Truman. Finally Benton called down, "If you want to help
paint, come up here." "By golly, I will," Truman replied. He climbed up
to the platform, seized a brush and began dabbing blue on the sky. Occasions
like this, made the President and the artist lifelong friends.
Upon completion of
"Independence and the Opening of the West" Benton described the action
of the work as follows:
In the area
about and above the door are the chief opposing elements of the drama.
Here are the Plains Indians, against the hunter and trapper, and the French
"voyageur" and the permanent settler who finally dispossessed the Indians.
The prospective settler represented is placed in the important position
directly above the door because it was he, and she, who set the seal of
accomplished fact on our continental destiny. Traders, explorers, hunters,
and adventurers marked the paths over which destiny took its course but
it was the settler who, in the end, was most consequential in establishing
the United States we now know. All settlers, hunters, trappers, and traders
of the West sooner or later came in direct contact with the Indians whose
hunting lands they invaded.
The Indians adjacent
to the door are Pawnees. The Pawnees ranged from what is now Nebraska
to the borders of present day Oklahoma country. Their chief wealth was
in horses and they were celebrated for their ability to steal them,
from other Indians as well as whites....
Travelers of the
Plains trails might well meet them first. They would be likely to appear
friendly in the hope of picking up a little coffee or tobacco, and this
is indicated by the offer of the pipe to the leader of the settlers'
train which is coming to a halt for supper. The whites are suspicious
as they usually were with Indians whose unpredictable behaviours, volative
temperments, and ways of thinking they did not understand. Some justification
of the suspicion is indicated by the Pawnee warrior, in the foreground
to the left of the door, who though probably aware of the peaceful pipe
offering has ideas of his own. The Indians were individualistic and
acted more frequently on purely personal initiative than the whites
who traversed the prairies. The whites knew the value of disciplined
cooperative action. That is one reason why they dispossessed the Indians
even though obstreperous whites frequently enough forgot their group
responsibilities. It was these latter who caused most of the Indian
troubles, according to Josiah Gregg, the first historian of the Plains,
and aside from President Truman the most distinguished citizen of Independence.
The Pawnee in the
fore plane of the picture is equipped, and painted, for marauding action
with ready bow and arrow and the famous Pawnee lasso entwined about
his waist. Opposite to him on the right side of the door is the Jim
Bridger, Kit Carson, Jim Beckwourth type of hunter, trapper, and mountain
man, who first scouted the pathways of the West. He would not make trouble
with the Indians. Normally he gets along with them, but he would be
ready, as the dropping of his traps and the charging of his gun suggests,
for any troubles which might arise. He is a dead shot and, like the
Indians, inured to physical hardships. he is not merely an adventurer
but is as we say "in business." He works at his beaver hunting and trapping
for a profit, but he usually expends this in a few wild days of "hoopla"
with the whiskey kegs, gambling rings, and acquiescent young Indian
squaws assembled by more calculating fur seekers from Independence,
St. Louis, and eastward, who buy his hard earned pelts at a fraction
of their world market value. He it is who made possible the beaver fortunes
of the Astors and other great and respectable notables of the 19th century.
He himself is not notably respectable but is nevertheless one of the
stalwarts of our westward destiny.
Above him is that
other omnipresent actor on our western trails, the French "voyageur"--boatman,
axman, mule skinner, and ox driver. Everywhere on the frontier from
Louisiana to Canada he was the man of hard work, gay song, and perpetual
good humor. His name is rarely known to record but we owe more to him,
perhaps, than to his celebrated countryman Lafayette.
In the foreground
to the right of the door are shown the indispensable workers of an outfitting
town such as was Independence. The boy pulling the bellows rope in the
blacksmith shop is not paid for his trouble. He is doing what all country
town kids have always liked to do, in cluding the artist. Beyond these,
again to the right, indicating the direction of the trade which first
built up the town is a Mexican gentleman with his, at the moment, refractory
The oxen led in
back of the wheelwright may be for sale or be simply on their way to
the owner's wagon. In the rear, wagons form a train, the loaded ones
moving out toward the prairie. Way back in the distance, showing that
the wagons are headed for Oregon are the famous landmarks of the Oregon
Trail, Chimney and Courthouse Rocks in western Nebraska. To the left
of the door, back of the Pawnee warrior a trader displays his wares
to a Cheyenne chief who has red fox furs to barter. Near the chief's
hand is the rifle, a French flintlock which has likely come West from
New Orleans, its journey furthered perhaps by the introduction of an
arrow to the body of its original owner. Back of the trader is the persuasive
whiskey keg, likely full of watered alcohol, pepper, and tobacco juice,
and back of that a young Cheyenne squaw bringing in more fur to trade.
Near her, pack mules are being reloaded for a further westward journey.
They are tardy members of the mule train going over the hill.
Above and to the
left of the Cheyenne chief a number of his young warriors show off their
horsemanship, no doubt stimulated by trader's beverages. Back of them
is Fort Bent, a formidable adobe fortress set far out on the Santa Fe
Trail along the banks of the Arkansas River, in southern Colorado. Back
of the Fort are the Spanish Peaks, landmarks of the way to Taos and
The lower panels,
right and left of the door, show Independence in the late 1840's and
the Missouri River landing where arrived most of the goods and peoples
which changed Independence from quiet backwoods settlement to a gateway
love of history only confirmed his affinity for the new mural. He once
said, "I picked him because he was the best and this is the finest work
by the best."
- American Regionalism
- An art movement
originating in the 1920's and 30's sought to capture the sweat and grit
of the 'real' America. It was fostered by the artists John Stuart Curry,
Grant Wood, and Thomas Hart Benton.
- a man employed
by the fur companies in transporting goods and men by the streams and
across the land between streams, to and from the remote stations in
- What medium was
used to complete this mural? What other artists have used this medium?
- Artists use colors
to influence the viewer's feelings. For example, pale pastels evoke
different emotions than strong, bright colors. What color scheme did
Benton use to portray the "Opening of the West"? What feelings do the
- What feelings does
Benton invoke with the frontier family in the center? What is their
reaction to the Native Americans approaching them?
- What kinds of goods
are being bartered in the lower left portion of the canvas?
- What are the mounted
Indians preparing for in the upper left corner?
- What two Nebraska
landmarks are identifiable in the upper right corner of the painting?
What is their significance to the American West?
- What was the role
of the African-American in westward expansion? How is Benton's depiction
of the African-American in the lower right corner similar? different?
- What do the two
bottom panels of the painting portray? Why do you think they were painted
separately from the rest of the painting?
- What Indian tribes
are depicted on the mural? Why did Benton chose those tribes? Did he
portray them in a historically accurate manner?
- What are some of
the different jobs being completed in the mural? Which of these jobs
(if any) are still performed today?
- Identify three
different scenes in the mural and give a brief description of the action
taking place. How do they contribute to the overall theme of "Independence
and the Opening of the West"?
- Why was this subject
chosen for the mural? Why wasn't an aggrandizement of Truman chosen
since the location of the mural is at his Presidential library?
- What art movement
did Thomas Hart Benton belong to? What aspects of the movement does
"Independence and the Opening of the West" follow? Which aspects of
the movement does the mural stray from?
- Choose one scene
of the mural and tell the story of the people in that scene. Write the
dialogue and describe the actions that are taking place.
- In what ways does
this painting fit your stereotype of the American frontier? How is it
- How was Independence,
Missouri important to the development of the west? What trails originated
there? What river does the city lie on? What was the impact of the steamboat
on Independence and the west?
- Who was Thomas
Hart Benton's famous student? What art movement did he belong to?
- Examine the works
of another American regionalist artist (John Stuart Curry and Grant
Wood are the most famous). How is their style similar to Benton? different?
- Chose another Thomas
Hart Benton painting and compare and contrast it to "Independence and
the Opening of the West." How is it stylistically, compositionally,
and spatially the same? different?
- Read the quote
and answer the following questions.
assume that some kind of representation of the President [Truman]
would have to be put in any mural for his library....A public picture
of a living politician is an almost impossible task because you have
to face too many people with it. If it isn't flattering you make the
man's constituency mad, if it is you make everybody else mad."
The President and Me: The Intimate Story
- Why would everybody
else be mad if the portrait of the President was too flattering?
- Why was Thomas
Hart Benton concerned with painting current political figures? (Examine
what happened when he painted Tom Pendergast in the Missouri capital
- Chief Justice Earl
Warren said of the mural in a speech at its unveiling, "[It] captures
the full drama of the epic western movement of our nation. It cannot
fail to reach the hearts of all who see it. It will help to stir the
imagination and the vision of our young people with whom the future
of our nation rests, and turn their thoughts to our heroic history and
to the values which made this country great." Do you agree or disagree?
- Why has Benton
chosen to not glorify any of the noteworthy men and women of the American
West in favor of depicting generalizations of the "common man"?
- Tell the story
of "America and the Millenium" in pictures. Use whatever medium you
desire. What kinds of people are depicted? How does your art work compare
to Thomas Hart Benton's?
Adams, Henry. 1989.
Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Benton, Thomas Hart.
"American Regionalism: A Personal History of the Movement." University
of Kansas City Review 18 (Autumn 1951): 41-75.
Benton, Thomas Hart.
1983. An Artist in America. 4th edition. Columbia, Missouri: University
of Missouri Press.
Benton, Thomas Hart.
"The President and Me: The Intimate Story." Gateway Heritage 16
(Winter 1995): 5-17.
Braun, Emily. 1985.
Thomas Hart Benton: The America Today Murals. (Catalog of an exhibition
presented by the Williams College Museum of Art, February 2-25, 1985).
New York: The Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States.
Doss, Erika Lee. 1991.
Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism: From Regionalism to
Abstract Expressionism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Marling, Karal Ann.
1985. Tom Benton and His Drawings: A Biographical Essay and a Collection
of His Sketches, Studies and Mural Cartoons. Columbia, Missouri: University
of Missouri Press.
Priddy, Bob. 1989.
Only the Rivers are Peaceful: Thomas Hart Benton's Missouri Mural.
Independence, Missouri: Independence Press/Herald Publishing House.
Thomas Hart Benton:
A Personal Commemorative. (A Retrospective Exhibition of His Works,
1907-1972, Spiva Art Center, Missouri Southern State College, Joplin,
Missouri, March 24 through April 27, 1973. In Honor of the Joplin Centennial).
Kansas City, Missouri: Burd and Fletcher, 1973.
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