Thomas Hart Benton and the American South

By J. Richard Gruber

This essay is adapted from the catalog for On the Road With Thomas Hart Benton: Images of a Changing America, a traveling exhibition organized by the Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, GA. Curated by deputy director J. Richard Gruber, it includes 20 paintings and more than 55 drawings and prints.

Cotton Bin, oil on tin, 9 x 123⁄4, painting, southwes art.
Cotton Bin, oil on tin, 9 x 123⁄4

When Thomas Craven published a profile of Thomas Hart Benton [1889-1975] in Scribner’s magazine in 1937, Benton was one of the most influential artists in America. His national stature transcended the traditional boundaries of the American art world, as evidenced by his self-portrait on the cover of Time magazine in December 1934—the first time an artist had been awarded the cover of the prominent news magazine.

During the Depression, Benton was widely regarded as a spokesman for issues related to the art and politics of the evolving American Scene movement. In 1969, 35 years later, Life magazine published an article on the aging artist with a title suggesting the continuing controversial nature of his public persona. In “Tom Benton at 80, Still at War with Bores and Boobs,” William McWhirter offered the following assessment of Benton’s stature:

Self Portrait [1970], tempera on canvas, 391⁄2 x 291⁄2, painting, southwes art.
Self Portrait [1970], tempera on canvas, 391⁄2 x 291⁄2

Tom Benton, who loved whiskey, chewed tobacco, and hated the law, traveled, baited, and painted this nation for the better part of the century. He went to war with critics, intellectuals, businessmen, politicians, radicals, friends, colleagues, and fellow artists, leaving home, leaving Paris, leaving the Communist revolution, leaving New York and finally returning home, to the Midwest, where, at least, he could be left alone…. The fact that he may be remembered fondly as some quaint grandpappy of American culture is our fault, not his…. But while we have gone about making our peace with Benton, no one has noticed that he has made none or very little with us. Thomas Hart Benton is still waging his constant war.

For most of his life, Benton remained associated in the popular mind with his home state of Missouri and the Midwest as well as with issues related to regionalism in art. Yet Benton’s art, his writings, and his public statements clearly demonstrated that his was a much broader national concern, a search for distinctly American forms and subjects—an art that, in many respects, transcended any one region, including the Midwest.

Open Blast Furnace Pennsylvania, sepia/ ink wash/pencil, 113⁄4 x 9, pencil, southwest art
Open Blast Furnace—Pennsylvania, sepia/ ink wash/pencil, 113⁄4 x 9

Benton’s exploration of a changing nation in the years after World War I inspired the creation of a significant range of art forms, including a revitalized approach to the American mural. After World War II, as American art rose to international prominence, Benton was the sole surviving member of the acclaimed Regionalist triumvirate—Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood—of the 1930s.

For Benton, one of the most important regions of the nation was the South. He first explored the deep South in the 1920s, as the final years of the “King Cotton” economy were giving way to the development of a new South. He returned again and again, traveling throughout the urban and rural South, along its rivers and waterways, and in the diverse mining cities and logging camps of the mountain South. Everywhere he went, he encountered a culture still rooted in the manners and traditions of the 19th century.

For those who travel in the South today, especially the once remote and isolated parts of the South that most attracted Benton, startling changes are evident. In the quiet and relatively undeveloped region of the Ozark Mountains, not far from his childhood home of Neosho, MO, the small town of Branson has become a major tourist destination known for its nightclubs. And in the mountains of Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina—where Benton once wandered on foot, carrying little more than a backpack with sketching supplies and a change of clothes, spending nights in isolated cabins with strangers where there were no hotels, and listening to the distinctive speech patterns and musical traditions of an earlier era—radical changes have occurred. Outside the boundaries of Smoky Mountain National Park, along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, one now finds the Dollywood theme park, nightclubs, dinner theaters, outlet malls, miniature golf courses, and a new gambling casino on the Cherokee Indian reservation.

Wreck of the Ol 97 [1944], lithograph, 101⁄4 x 15, lithograph, southwest art.
Wreck of the Ol’ 97 [1944], lithograph, 101⁄4 x 15

It might be easy to assume, especially from a modern perspective colored by a nostalgic longing for a lost past, that Benton’s art focused exclusively on the icons of a passing era. Instead, he often offered a more complex and contradictory set of images than might be expected. While Benton presented bucolic rural scenes of barns and cabins, he also painted cities where steel girders filled the sky and the pulse of urban activity replaced the rural patterns and rhythms of his childhood years. In addition, Benton often presented the realities of man’s relationship to the natural environment, including the ways that environment was being exploited by modern technologies. He visited remote timber camps and traveled to Pennsylvania and West Virginia mining towns where conditions were far from ideal for laborers and their families.

It is important to note that Benton’s eye, which could at times be attuned to the more comfortable patterns of the 19th century, was distinctly modern in training and orientation. In many respects, as author Thomas Craven suggested in 1937, Benton was a “social historian” bent on capturing the realities of a passing era. His was, most often, a direct and unflinching vision of American reality during a period of significant transition. In the mountains, Benton showed the old and the new, the cabins and the modern mining operations, and from all appearances he seemed to be equally infatuated with the details and the realities of each. Exploring the rivers of the South, he sought out the remaining steamships and old packet boats used to ship bales of cotton, yet he also traveled on the most modern diesel ships. Both are described in his art and his writings.

“Who knows the South?” Benton wrote in his popular autobiography, An Artist in America [1937]. “It is a land of beauty and horror, of cultivation and refinement, laid over misery and degradation. It is a land of tremendous contradictions … [but] the South remains our romantic land. It remains so because it is. I have seen the red clay of Georgia reveal its color in the dawn and the bayous of Louisiana glitter in magnolia-scented moonlight. There are no crude facts about the South which can ever kill the romantic effect of these on my imagination.”

The exhibition, in the tour developed by Smith Kramer Fine Art Services, travels to the following venues: Nevada Museum of Art, Reno; University of Southwest Louisiana, Lafayette; Minnesota Museum of American Art, St. Paul,; Louisiana Arts and Science Center, Baton Rouge; Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, Laurel, MI; Springfield Museums, Springfield, MA; York College Museum of Art, York, PA; Frye Art Museum, Seattle, WA; Knoxville Museum of Art, TN; Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK; and Fort Wayne Museum of Art, IN.

The exhibition catalog, which is distributed by the University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, can be ordered from the Morris Museum of Art at 706.724.7501 or

Photos courtesy the Thomas Hart Benton and Rita P. Benton Testamentary Trusts, licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Featured in July 1998