Thomas Hart Benton: “The best damn painter in America”

Persephone by Thomas Hart Benton hangs in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Last Sunday I saw an article in the Kansas City Star Magazine about the Thomas Hart Benton home and studio in Kansas City.  Enticed by the promise of the 13 Benton originals that the article said hang in the house, I went yesterday.

Thomas Hart Benton might be the first artist I admired.  I don’t recall ever being taken to an art gallery as a child, but I was taken several times to the Missouri Capital Building in Jefferson City and, on the guided tour, saw The Social History of Missouri in the Legislator’s Lounge.  On one of those visits, I remember taking it all in and deciding I was proud to have been born in Missouri.  I later picked up a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at an age at which I was still young enough to be shocked (and deeply impressed) by its irreverent insights, and I was drawn to the book, in part, because I recognized the image on the cover as a detail from that impressive mural by Benton.

Touring the house and studio really is like walking back in time – back in time to the life of a well-to-do elderly couple in the 1960’s and ’70’s.  Their clothes hang in the closets.  Their linens are on the beds.  A handwritten shopping list is stuck to the old-fashioned fridge.  I noticed the toilet in the Thomas Hart Benton bathroom is identical to the one in my own house, obviously old but still flushes pretty well.  When I was house shopping recently, I walked through many houses owned by and still lived in by very old people.  I got a similar feeling walking around the Benton home, like I was snooping.

None of the originals displayed in the house are what I would call impressive, but several were interesting.  Three are small sculptures.  A still life is on display together with the vase that was used as the model.  There is a watercolor.   And a small abstract work painted in 1973 that looks nothing like the work of Thomas Hart Benton, but is.

Benton converted part of the adjacent carriage house into his studio.  He painted over certain windows and had others installed to admit the right kind of light.  The studio is still cluttered with his tools, paintbrushes and easels.  Like the house, it feels like a working studio.   We were told he spent most of his time there, alone.

The tour guide told us he died there of a heart attack.  Britannica agrees.  But Wikipedia, citing PBS, has him succumbing at a second home in Martha’s Vineyard.  It’s a mystery.

Other places to see Benton’s works in Kansas City are the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art which has  26 works of Thomas Hart Benton including Persephone.   Harry Truman, who called Thomas Hart Benton “the best damn painter in America” commissioned Benton to paint the mural Independence and the Opening of the West for the Truman Library.

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