Seeing Thomas Hart Benton’s Panorama of American Life from Another Angle

The series of murals collectively known as “America Today” depict vignettes of a growing, changing nation in vibrant color.

A busy mural featuring people doing everyday activities
‘Changing West.’ The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of AXA Equitable, 2012

Wander around the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York long enough and eventually you’ll stumble into a room—Gallery 909—where striking wall-size murals immerse you in a whirlwind tour of American life from the late 1920s through the eyes and brushwork of Thomas Hart Benton.

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The series of murals collectively known as “America Today” fill almost every inch of the room’s wall space. The panels are each somewhat divided by molding added directly to the canvas face to create vignettes of a growing, changing nation in vibrant color, alive with physicality both gross and beautiful. Buildings erupt in the cities as oil dykes line the desert skyline like great churning insects of steel. Men and women work and dance and eat and fight during the boom time of the Roaring Twenties.

SEE ALSO: Piet Mondrian at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts

In 1929 the director of the newly formed New School For Social Research approached Benton with a major commission for the board of directors room. His idea was a series of paintings that would celebrate the progress of America while acknowledging the origins of that progress. Benton, at age 40, had yet to be offered a project of that scale but there was one major caveat: there was no money for the artist. What a surprise.

Benton was nonetheless the right artist for the work. He saw the undertaking as a challenge that could propel him to a different level in his profession and his life experience had put him in the perfect place to complete the paintings. He had spent four years on the road with a friend as a young man crossing the country, taking note of the changes that were occurring from coast to coast.

Born into a prosperous Missouri family in 1889, his father was a four-time congressman known as the ‘little giant of the Ozarks’. Benton attended Western Military Academy but on graduation enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago. He spent time studying in Paris after which he became a self-proclaimed enemy of modernism. By 1912 he was in New York where he became associated with the regionalist painters, a group of painters lumped together for depicting life in middle America, small-town life, and their collective rejection of modern art ideas.

With the start of WWI, he was conscripted to be in the art core where he worked on camouflage design and drew ships for troop identification charts. Work that surely helped inform the Instruments of Power panel in the America Today room. The painting is a montage of machinery that was changing the world at the time, and one that stylistically seems to owe a serious nod to the Italian futurists, for a sworn enemy of modernism.

A busy mural featuring people doing everyday activities
‘City Activities with Dance Hall.’ The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of AXA Equitable, 2012

Benton left the Navy and began teaching at New York’s famous Art Students League as many of his contemporaries did. Their influence created a focus on classical learning practices, anatomy classes using live models and painting classes that stressed technique, not expression—attitudes that were still alive and well when I studied there in the early nineties.

The swooning physicality of his compositions influenced many of his students during his ten years at the league including a young Jackson Pollock, whom Benton had taken under his wing as a kid. Pollock worked for and even lived with Benton, who was a mentor he could rebel against, but there is no mistaking the influence of Benton’s style on Pollock’s early work.

The America Today mural was painted from 1930 to 1932, and Benton used his students from the Art Students League as models and assistants while working on his series of murals. The painter took pride in the overall authenticity of the work, using scenes and details he had sketched and noted during his wandering years. “Every detail of every picture is a thing I myself have seen and known. Every head is a real person drawn from life,” he is quoted as saying in Thomas Hart Benton: The America Today Murals by Emily Braun and Thomas Branchick.

Benton took on the gargantuan task of painting the ten murals and then redoubled the effort by using classical methods. He started each panel by creating a loose composition in miniature that would move the eye around the space just using shapes. He would then morph those shapes into environments and populate them, adding details until he had a narrative. From this, he would sculpt a maquette, a deep relief in clay that would allow him to see the play of dark and light that he used in the mural to such dramatic effect.

To transpose his small sketches to the full-size panels, he made cartoons—simple outlines of the compositions drawn on a grid which were then copied cell by cell onto the final panel, a method painters have used since ancient Greece. He also mixed his own paints with egg yolk and pigment, painting in each grid in a race against the paint drying on the panel.

A busy mural featuring people doing everyday activities
‘Deep South.’ The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of AXA Equitable, 2012

I asked my old friend and teacher from the Art Students League, Costa Vavagiakis, master of painting technique himself, to comment on Breton, whom he greatly admires. “Thomas Hart Benton was an intensely erudite progressive who saw the beauty in the need and function of all things… He comes from the lineage of Michelangelo, Cambiaso, Tintoretto and El Greco.”

Each of Breton’s ten panels has a theme. In City Activities With Subway, burlesque dancers on stage balance boxers in the ring along the top while strap hangers commute in anonymity, ignoring one another, while across the canvas lovers make out on a park bench. Down the center, the mass of humanity works and prays and trogs through life, all depicted in the same muscular, flowing style.

Across the room, the Deep South panel shows a world a thousand miles away from big city life. where black men fill bags with cotton and transport the white fluff to a waiting river boat with horse and carriage while white men use machines to do the same job on the opposing side. From both sides the cotton is loaded onto an old paddle steamer boat of the kind that was already part of the past when Benton painted the panel, having witnessed and sketched just such a scene on the Missouri River when he was traveling. Capturing in one panel past, present and future.

Throughout the work, which celebrates the dynamism of the Jazz Age, there are reminiscences of times past, and also of hard times to come. We see biplanes in the sky and giant steam shovels gouging out mountains but we also see ranch hands corralling stock and dead tired laborers bent over pickaxes. Money flows freely as couples dance in elegant nightclubs and sit in cinemas, but the spewing ticker tape machine boxes the looming economic crisis to come.

In a piece about “America Today” for Smithsonian magazine, Paul Theroux wrote: “None of it was fanciful or exaggerated; it is a true portrait of the Jazz Age, which was also the era of intense industrialization in the United States when cotton was king and oil was beginning to gush; of clearing land for the planting of wheat and cotton, the making of steel and mining of coal, when New York skyscrapers were rising and the city was bursting with life.”

The regionalist and Benton himself have never been short of detractors in the art world as holdovers or left-behinds. Though from a distance the influence of modernism is obvious in his work as his influence is on generations of painters in different schools of abstraction that came after him.

The mural which hung in the board of directors room at The New School was purchased by AXA Insurance in 1984 for $3.4 million, but still nothing was paid to the artist. By 2012, the mural in whole was acquired by the Met with special funding that was used to restore and re-install the piece in a space designed and built to the specifications of its original venue.

Whether the piece gave Benton’s reputation the boost he hoped it would during his lifetime, it certainly sealed his legacy as one of the great painters of humanity in his period. He had a wide-reaching influence on the painters he taught over his long career and all those who look back on his work as the high watermark of great American mural painting.

Seeing Thomas Hart Benton’s Panorama of American Life from Another Angle