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by Todd Camplin
I was instantly reminded about two artists in Europe that were interested in film. In 2008, a
documentary came out about the founders of cubism titled: Picasso and Braque go to the
Movies. It was about early cinema’s huge influence on the development of their style and
even color palettes. Benton on the other hand was influenced by lighting, set design, and
staging a scene. I see Benton as focusing on the theatrical aspect of film. His murals were
often montages of conflicting scenes and characters depicting meandering narratives.
Some of the paintings in the shows were used for movie posters, because Benton was able
to boil down a scene into just one picture. But many of the paintings feel more Broadway
than Hollywood, because his scenes are filled with characters that are compacted onto
one stage, rather than depicted in several scenes.
Thomas Hart Benton (1889­–1975)
If you want to see the good, bad, and the ugly about the United States in early to mid twentieth
century paintings, then Thomas Hart Benton is your man. Amon Carter Museum of American Art
is featuring 100 works by Benton in a show titled American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and
Hollywood. It has been quite a while since Benton has had a major exhibition and I find it
quite interesting that he is paired with film making.
Thomas Hart Benton (1889­–1975)
Hollywood, 1937–38
Tempera with oil on canvas, mounted on panel
©T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA,
New York, NY, www.vagarights.com
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the artist Photo by
Jamison Miller
Benton’s style is often described as depicting people as caricatures. I see everything in his
composition as caricature. From the landscape, to the objects around the people, everything
is stylized and exaggerated. I know some have described him as a realist, but I don’t think
this description even comes close to his style. Benton distorts things and people a little like
an expressionist might distort a landscape or figure. I am somewhat put off by his pessimism,
but then I have to remind myself that authors writing around his time like Steinbeck, Fitzgerald,
and Hemingway also have a similar fatalistic approach. Maybe with a great deal more
ambiguity than Benton, but I see him in that zeitgeist.  
Thomas Hart Benton (1889­–1975)
The Kentuckian, 1954
Oil on canvas
© T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/
Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, www.vagarights.com
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Burt Lancaster,
Photo courtesy of LACMA
Benton was quite a traditionalist in that he did a lot of preparation for his competitions. Some
evidence is here in the show with some drawings and sketches. He also made use of clay and
live models to get the lighting and staged scenes just right. His paintings were gridded out
and every element was in place when he executed his final paintings. I do admire his
attention to detail and method of art production.
Thomas Hart Benton (1889­–1975)
Thursday Night at the Cock-and-Bull. It’s the Maid’s Night Out, 1937
Ink, watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper
© T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank
Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, www.vagarights.com
Private collection, Photo by Larry Ferguson Studio
When opinions shifted against his work in the art world, there may have been a need of distance
before another major exhibition was launched. I think the idea of pairing Benton with film helps
viewers with a way into the work for a contemporary audience. However, it would be nice to see
a show about Thomas Hart Benton that is purely about him as a retrospective. Lets hope it will not
take another 25 years. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood ends on May 1st at
the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

Thomas Hart Benton (1889­–1975)