Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

FAQ: Can you tell me more about Thomas Hart Benton?

Thomas Hart Benton was born on April 15, 1889, at Neosho, Missouri, and died on January 19, 1975. He studied at the Chicago Art Institute and the Academie Julien, in Paris, France, staging his first public exhibition in 1916. In the 1920s he developed his sculptural, three-dimensional painting style, and in the 1930s he turned to "regionalist" subject matter that emphasized common people and the land. His 1936 "Missouri" mural, which is located at the Capitol Building in Jefferson City, raised much controversy with the figures and events he chose to depict the history of the state.

In 1958, Benton agreed to paint a mural in the entrance to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. After several discussions with President Truman, they settled on a theme for the mural highlighting the town of Independence as the starting point for the westward expansion over the trails, covering the period from 1830 to 1847.

a. Where did Benton paint the mural?

The mural, entitled "Independence and the Opening of the West", was painted at the Truman Library, much of which was accomplished from a 14 scaffold.

b. How long did it take to complete?

From conceptualization through completion, the mural took approximately two and a half years. Benton first turned out hundreds of sketches of figures and portions of the mural. He then sculpted a three-dimensional clay model, on a 2 by 4 board, depicting the figures that would eventually appear in the completed mural. He began to first apply paint to the canvas, at the Truman Library, on December 12, 1959.

Benton utilized an acrylic polymer latex paint, which was applied on a special Belgian linen surface. A sealer was applied over the original paint on the plaster wall, to prevent "bleeding" action, and the linen was applied with a polyester adhesive. The linen was then covered with a liquid latex gesso to provide the painting ground. The mural occupies a space 19 by 32, and covers 495 square feet, and was completed in March, 1961.

The mural, for which Benton was paid $60,000, was dedicated on April 15, 1961. The funds for the mural were provided by the Harry S. Truman Library, Inc., the private corporation that built the building, and the Edwin Austin Abbey Memorial Trust Fund for Mural Painting.