The acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum of Art of Thomas Hart Benton’s groundbreaking mural America Today has aroused new interest in Benton’s murals. America Today was commissioned by the New School for Social Research in 1930. Two years later, Gertrude Vanderbilt, who had seen America Today commissioned Benton to create a similar mural for the Whitney Museum titled The Arts of Life in America.
The tale of those two murals offers a tragi-comic history of benign neglect and changes in critical perception that would affect the prestige and desirability of Benton’s work. Both works passed from fame to disregard and back to fame.
America Today: Changing West, 1930-31. Thomas Hart Benton (1889 – 1975). Egg tempera with oil glazing. Gift of AXA Equitable to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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Arts of the City (detail), 1932. Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975). Tempera with oil glaze, 96 x 264 in. New Britain Museum of American Art, Harriet Russell Stanley Fund, 1953.19.
Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) painted The Arts of Life in America (1932) during the depths of the Great Depression. The series provided the artist with the second most complex project of his emerging career. His slightly earlier New School Murals portrayed America at work while The Arts of Life described America at play. He was intensely ambitious and wanted to create murals that would inspire Americans to overcome the almost insurmountable difficulties they were facing.
As a young man, Benton was torn between following in the footsteps of his father, a congressman, and his great uncle, Senator Thomas Hart Benton. His mother, however, encouraged him to become an artist, and he studied at the Art Institute School in Chicago and at the Académie Julian in Paris. (more…)
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