The Old Print Shop

Thomas Hart Benton


Thomas Hart Benton – printmaker, painter, and muralist – is considered one of America’s most famous artists.  He was born in Neosho, Missouri, to “Colonel” Maecenas Eason Benton and Elizabeth Wise Benton.  His father was a lawyer and politician serving four terms as a U.S. Congressman.  He was named after his great uncle, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri.  His father wanted his son to be a politician; however, Benton was more interested in drawing than politics.  His mother supported his artistic endeavors, but his father did not.

He attended Neosho High School in 1905-06 and left for a job drawing cartoons for a newspaper.  His father convinced him to attend the Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois in 1906.  After less than a year he left the Academy and began studying at the Art Institute of Chicago.  From 1908 to 1911 he lived in Paris and studied at the Academie Julien.  In 1912 he settled in New York City and struggled to make a living as an artist.  He taught at the Art Students League, the Chelsea Neighborhood Association, and New York public schools.  During WWI he served in the Navy and his work with the Navy changed his artistic vision.  He was asked to make realistic drawings of the camouflage on the ships entering the harbor in Norfolk, Virginia, and to document the shipyard work and life.  After leaving the Navy he returned to New York City.  In 1922 he married Rita Piacenza, and they had two children - Thomas Piacenza Benton and Jessie Benton.

Benton’s early career as a painter saw him painting in many styles including impressionism, synchronism, and cubism.  None of these painting techniques satisfied him. In 1924 he returned to Missouri to reconnect with his dying father.  The visit rekindled his interest in his rural upbringing.  In the spring of 1926 he began a two-month journey through the heartland of America.  He drew farmers working in their fields, children in schoolhouses, and life around small towns.  The trip was significant for the artist because he began developing his style capturing the American experience.  He produced a number of important murals during the 1930's, some for the WPA.  One of his most popular murals is A Social History of the State of Missouri in the Missouri State Capitol.

The artist made his first lithograph, The Station, in 1929.  Benton submitted it to Fifty Prints of the Year in 1930 under the title Oklahoma.  It was selected by John Sloan for the exhibit.  The lithograph was favorably reviewed in The New York Times.  During the early Depression era, he produced a small group of prints.  Starting in 1934 he began a long, sometimes aggravating, relationship with Associated American Artists in New York City, who circulated sixty-one of the artist’s ninety-three known lithographs.