Thomas Hart Benton

(1889 - 1975)

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Thomas Hart Benton is known as the leading exponent of Regionalism, a movement characterized by its celebration of rural American subject matter.  Born in Neosho, Missouri, in 1889, Benton studied at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington and the Art Institute of Chicago intending to become a newspaper illustrator.  In 1908, he went to Paris, where he enrolled in the Academie Julian, and briefly experimented with Impressionist techniques.  Benton eventually returned to this country in 1911 and settled in New York.  He held a variety of jobs working as a commercial artist, a decorator of ceramics, and as a set designer for a motion-picture studio, then located in Fort Lee, New Jersey.  From 1914 to 1918, Benton experimented with Synchronist style paintings, a style that depended to a greater extent on color contrasts.  Benton soon left New York for Norfolk, Virginia, where he was stationed with the Navy; it was there that Benton began to question the modernist ideas he had been exposed to in France and in the New York circle.  Shifting away from abstraction, Benton started to portray realistic small town scenes.  The artist sought the typical rather than the particular, the behavior patterns representative of different types of people rather than the activities of individuals, the recognizable character of an area rather than an exact description of topography (Baigell, 83).  It was Benton’s strong belief that art should be accessible to the average person.  Throughout the rest of his life, Benton continued to paint in his distinctive regionalist manner.