Thomas Hart Benton: A Life

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9780374199876: Thomas Hart Benton: A Life

Born in Missouri at the end of the nineteenth century, Thomas Hart Benton would become the most notorious and celebrated painter America had ever seen. The first artist to make the cover of Time, he was a true original: an heir to both the rollicking populism of his father's political family and the quiet life of his Appalachian grandfather. In his twenties, he would find his calling in New York, where he was drawn to memories of his small-town youth―and to visions of the American scene.

By the mid-1930s, Benton's heroic murals were featured in galleries, statehouses, universities, and museums, and magazines commissioned him to report on the stories of the day. Yet even as the nation learned his name, he was often scorned by critics and political commentators, many of whom found him too nationalistic and his art too regressive. Even Jackson Pollock, his once devoted former student, would turn away from him in dramatic fashion. A boxer in his youth, Benton was quick to fight back, but the widespread backlash had an impact―and foreshadowed many of the artistic debates that would dominate the coming decades.

In this definitive biography, Justin Wolff places Benton in the context of his tumultuous historical moment―as well as in the landscapes and cultural circles that inspired him. Thomas Hart Benton―with compelling insights into Benton's art, his philosophy, and his family history―rescues a great American artist from myth and hearsay, and provides an indelibly moving portrait of an influential, controversial, and often misunderstood man.

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About the Author:

Justin Wolff is an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Maine. He is the author of Richard Caton Woodville: American Painter, Artful Dodger.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
 
NEOSHO
 
 
In a 1972 interview, Thomas Hart Benton was asked if being named after his great-uncle, the boisterous nineteenth-century senator, had built into him “a kind of compulsion for greatness.” “No, I would not believe that at all,” he responded. And though Benton continually rebuffed the pleas of his father, a U.S. congressman, that he practice either law or politics, the truth is that he never lacked self-confidence or a sense of purpose. At the age of seventeen, he boasted to his mother, “I am bound to be successful. I have the fullest confidence in myself.” That his renown would be marked by controversy was virtually preordained. In an unpublished memoir written late in life, Benton explained that his was a “family fated, it would seem, for turmoil. I was raised in a family environment which conditioned me very early in my life to accept strife and argument as basic factors of existence.”
Senator Thomas Hart Benton is an American icon, the sort of man who typifies the tales of audacity often told in high school history books. In his biography of the senator, Theodore Roosevelt described him as “a man of high principle and determined courage.” “Old Bullion”—a nickname the senator earned for his devotion to hard-money currency—“was deeply imbued with the masterful, overbearing spirit of the West,—a spirit whose manifestations are not always agreeable, but the possession of which is certainly a most healthy sign of the virile strength of a young community.” As much as any figure of the day, Senator Benton has come to stand for the vigorous republicanism of early America; though aristocratic by nature, he rallied his considerable might behind small farmers, tradespeople, landowner rights, and a just economic system. Though “not necessarily one of ‘the people,’” one historian explains, he was their “defender.”
The senator was born in Orange County, North Carolina, on March 14, 1782. His mother, a forceful, educated Virginian and a widow, moved her family to a plot bequeathed by her husband on the western slope of the Appalachian Mountains in southeastern Tennessee. On this frontier land, in the midst of Cherokee settlements, the family built roads, mills, and a plantation, which eventually became part of the small town of Benton. The nearest city, Nashville, 180 miles to the northwest, was, according to Roosevelt, a savage place where horse racing, cockfighting, gambling, whiskey, and “the various coarse vices which masquerade as pleasures in frontier towns, all throve in rank luxuriance.” The young would-be senator took to these vices with gusto and witnessed many street fights, stabbings, and murders.
These skills served him well during two infamous duels. The second took place in September 1817, after he’d moved to St. Louis to practice law and founded a newspaper, the Missouri Inquirer, which advocated statehood for the Missouri Territory. Benton challenged Charles Lucas, a St. Louis lawyer, to a fight to the death in 1816, after Lucas insulted him during a case before the circuit court. Lucas refused the challenge but further antagonized Benton during the August election of 1817, when he accused him of not paying his taxes. Old Bullion countered that he would not answer charges made by “any puppy who may happen to run across my path.” The duel occurred on a small patch of land in the Mississippi River, soon to be dubbed Bloody Island. At a distance of thirty feet, Benton wounded Lucas in the throat and was himself grazed by a bullet. Lucas claimed satisfaction, but Benton was bloodthirsty. On September 26, 1817, after Lucas had recovered enough to return to work, he received a note from the senator demanding another duel. The next day the two met again, at a distance of ten feet. Lucas missed and Benton killed him with a bullet to the chest.
But even before the Lucas incident, Benton was notorious for his combativeness. Before he moved to Missouri, at the outset of the War of 1812, General Andrew Jackson appointed him his aide-de-camp, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and dispatched him to languish in the safety of Washington—his orders were to assuage anxieties about the firebrand general. Already frustrated by his posting far from the field of battle, Benton was sensitive to any perceived slight, so when he learned about an insult to his brother Jesse, perpetrated by William Carroll, a soldier under Jackson’s command, he flew into a rage. Jackson—himself no stranger to physical violence (he had already killed a man in a duel and was inclined to cane his foes)—publicly threatened to horsewhip his impudent colonel and scolded him in a letter: “It is the character of a man of honor … not to quarrel and brawl like fish women.” Justice-minded, Benton and Jesse arrived at the Nashville Inn on September 4, 1813, to settle the score. Jackson was skinny and Benton thick and broad, but “in capacity for blind fury, utter recklessness and iron-willed determination, neither man had a superior.”
Brandishing a whip, Jackson charged Benton, yelling, “Now defend yourself, you damned rascal!” According to Roosevelt, “The details were so intricate that probably not even the participants themselves knew exactly what had taken place … At any rate, Jackson was shot and Benton was pitched headlong downstairs, and all the other combatants were more or less damaged; but it ended in Jackson being carried off by his friends” and Benton ceremoniously breaking his commanding officer’s sword over his knee, “leaving the Bentons masters of the field, where they strutted up and down and indulged in a good deal of loud bravado.” Content with their victory, the Benton brothers retreated to Missouri.
After killing Lucas, Benton cooled down and committed himself to the political battleground. Missouri’s second Democratic senator, Benton served six consecutive terms, from 1821 to 1851, winning support by bringing a mixture of grandiosity and pragmatism to bear on an era of expansion; in his long, passionate stump speeches, delivered in a “jabbing, repetitive” style and “roaring voice,” Benton linked frontier life to Union principles. Like his grandnephew later, the senator was wary of centralized power and devoted to America’s democratic experiment, which he saw as nothing less than a revolution in the service of humanity.
What Roosevelt admired most about Senator Benton was that he refused to endorse the spread of slavery, even when his constituents wanted him to, and so “bravely [accepted] defeat as the alternative … going down without flinching a hair’s breadth from the ground on which he always stood.” Roosevelt probably gives him too much credit, for the senator never anticipated that slavery would tear his party apart. But as James Polk came to power, “Union Democracy” receded into the realm of impractical idealism, and party members split into factions—separatists on one side and Free-Soilers on the other. Senator Benton, in Roosevelt’s words, had now entered “the heroic part of his career.” The senator, though, was guided not by a philosophy of racial harmony but by a love for the Union—“the world’s last hope for free government on the earth”—and pragmatism. He reasoned that economic concerns would settle the matter: one day, he hoped, it would be cheaper to hire a man than to own him. But when it became clear that the debate about whether to annex Texas was in fact a debate about whether to grant the South’s agenda federal license, and thus permit the spread of slavery to new territories, Old Bullion dug in. “I shall not fall upon my sword,” he threatened, “but I shall save it, and save myself for another day, and for another use—for the day when the battle of the disunion of these States is to be fought—not with words, but with iron.”
Though Senator Benton served as the chief military adviser to President Polk during the Mexican War, by backing Oregon’s wish to bar slavery from its territory, he prompted an all-out effort within the Democratic Party to scuttle his bid for reelection in 1850. The senator stumped across Missouri, addressing crowds with high rhetoric and claiming that he “would sooner sit in council with the six thousand dead who had died of cholera in St. Louis [in 1849], than go into convention with such a gang of scamps [the Democrats] … Even the election of Whigs will be a triumph over them—a victory in behalf of the Union—and that is the over-ruling consideration.” His constituents, however, saw such bombastic oratory as a graver threat to the Union than the spread of slavery, and he was defeated.
The senator’s actions during the slavery debate illustrate a paradox of character that manifested itself in the careers of his descendants, most notably Maecenas Benton, a U.S. representative from Missouri during the late nineteenth century, and Maecenas’s son Thomas Hart Benton. Though generally understood as men motivated first by regional concerns—as advocates for farmers, small-business owners, and settlers—all three Bentons desired national attention. A common misconception about regionalism is that it was an isolationist doctrine, but as practiced by these three men, it was rarely escapist; each of them viewed the local as a reflection of a broader republican state. The purpose of any given region, like Missouri, was to exemplify how a nation guided by democratic principles might function. The senator, according to his grandnephew, “helped, with pompous phrase but determined will, to lay the hand of the West on eastern political policy.” All Bentons, he added, relied on “power” rather than “God” to enact and justify their superiority. The Benton men craved national authority and, contrary to popular opinion, often belittled and condescended to small-town attitudes. Benton, the painter, believed, for instance, that his father alienated his constituents in rural Missouri, thus costing himself reelection, by donning the fashions and habits of a “tidewater aristocrat,” his term for privileged and socially poised Chesapeake easterners. The same was true, and more so, of our Benton: he was torn apart by the competing allures of rural Missouri and cosmopolitan New York.
*   *   *
Maecenas Eason Benton, “the Colonel,” left southwest Missouri for Tennessee after the Civil War, “knocking the snakes … out of his horse’s path with a long stick.” Though M.E., as he was also called, served with the Confederate army and fought at Shiloh under General Nathan Bedford Forrest, he was not in fact a colonel; the title was simply a common sobriquet for southern gentlemen. The Tennessee Bentons were “an individualistic and cocksure people” who “nursed their idiosyncrasies and took no advice”; M.E., “a slice of the block,” was born in northwestern Tennessee in 1848 and attended school in Missouri. Even as a boy he exhibited a “splendid American fighting spirit.” After the war, the Colonel earned a law degree at Cumberland University, in Lebanon, Tennessee; moved to Neosho in 1869; and established a fashionable law practice, enticing clients with rollicking stories and a “full measure of political ability.” Possessed of a wonderful memory, and an expert eater, drinker, and stump speaker, the Colonel prospered in both the Missouri bar and the state Democratic Party. He made his debut in politics when he was elected prosecuting attorney of Newton County, and his party loyalty earned him an appointment as a U.S. district attorney during Grover Cleveland’s first term, from 1885 to 1889. The Colonel further distinguished himself in 1887, when he took on a murderous gang of vigilantes, known as the Bald Knobbers, who, under the leadership of the ruthless Nat Kinney, terrorized the outsiders who settled in Missouri after the war. Benton recalled that for many years after prosecuting the gang, the Colonel would close all the cedar shutters in their glamorous house each evening, paranoid that vengeful gang members intended to kill his family.
In general, though, Neosho was a gentle place—a town, Benton explains, “addicted” to celebrations. Today it calls itself the Flower Box City. The seat of Newton County in the Hickory Creek valley, Neosho had been a fertile habitat for Native tribes on account of its abundant springs and during Benton’s childhood was rich with Indian lore. It was just miles from the Nations, since the early nineteenth century the prescribed homeland of displaced tribes, including Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles. (The land, as these stories go, was later seized upon the formation of the state of Oklahoma, in 1907.) Before the Civil War, pioneers from Kentucky and Tennessee settled among the oaks, walnuts, and hickories that grew along the region’s creeks; during the war, Neosho saw its share of skirmishes and was situated close enough to the Battle of Pea Ridge (1862)—in which over five thousand soldiers died and Missouri was secured for the Union—that it switched hands between the Confederate army and “the federals” several times.
Neosho reconstructed well, however, and by the time the Colonel hung his shingle outside a downtown office, the town was almost two thousand strong, and commerce was slowly displacing the horrific war as the business of the day. In typically terse but imagistic prose, Benton recollects the Neosho of his childhood:
In the middle eighteen-nineties, when I first began to take notice of things, it was far off from the lines of continental travel and had an old-fashioned flavor. Its people took their time. Old soldiers of the Civil War sat around in the shade of store awnings or lounged about the livery stables, which were, in the horse-and-buggy civilization of the time, important centers of reminiscence and debate … Confederate and Union gatherings occurred every year and the square would be full of veterans, with imprecise triangles of old men’s tobacco spit staining their white or grizzled beards. They lived over again their bloody youth. They used to congregate in the law office of my father … These old war birds of the Great Struggle were a constant part of my early environment and when, years later, I painted a picture depicting the departure of the doughboys of the sixties for the front, I painted them as grizzled and toothless old men. I knew … them as such.
But Neosho was a modern town as well: it was home to a bountiful strawberry industry and the country’s first federal fish hatchery, established in 1888. These two institutions represented more than a growing economy in Neosho; they were manifestations of a profound change in small midwestern towns during the Gilded Age—a shift from agrarianism to “civic scientific management” and “corporate capitalism.” Both Benton and his father bemoaned these changes.
Though the Colonel drank and smoked with “clients” in his downtown office, he wasn’t content to live among the people. When he was thirty-nine and still a bachelor, he built a massive house atop a hill outside of town. Oak Hill, as the house was called, was situated amid a grove of majestic oaks and had all the amenities: a coal furnace in the basement for central heat, a cistern with a charcoal and gypsum filtration system for drinking water, a large kitchen with a bread oven, a parlor, a library, and a tin-lined bathtub. Each side of the house had a porch, the one in front affording a view down a long valley to town, the one in back leading out to a stretch of land with a glass conservatory for exotic plants, flower and vegetable gardens, a smokehouse, a chicken coop, a half-acre pig lot, and a barn with a hayloft, where young Tom and friends staged circuses and theatrical productions. In 1887 a proud Colonel moved into Oak Hill with his brother Sam and sisters Fanny and Dolly, both spinsters.
Soon after, a twenty...

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