AMERICA'S PIONEERING MURALIST: THOMAS HART BENTON

Though murals are used for a whole range of purposes—from advertising to trade shows to digital artwork – the secret to a public mural that stands the test of time is how well it portrays the essence of a particular group of people. Little else can sum up an entire citizenry, for instance, than when a master artist portrays individual people with authenticity and style.

One such artist was Thomas Hart Benton, whose murals for the Missouri State Capitol stand as one of the greater accomplishments in the history of American public art.

While the murals, which adorn various walls within the capitol building, hearken back to Missouri’s pioneer days, they were actually completed in December of 1936. The official name of the project was “A Social History of the State of Missouri,” though Benton was given carte blanche to explore the topic from any vantage point that he wished, not merely an historical one.

According to the official web site for the murals, “Benton believed his paintings represented the character of the Midwest, capturing the vitality and essence of Missouri through everyday scenes.” In order to capture the totality of Missouri, Benton did his best to genuinely portray typical residents of the area. In all, Benton included 235 individual portraits of people into the project.

Benton also added images that evoked various Missouri characters, including those whose reputations were less than stellar, as their influence had nonetheless had a lasting impact on Missouri’s culture. He also depicted controversial issues such as lynching, slavery and the influence of Mormons – all of which significantly influenced Missouri’s social fabric.

To get a better sense of the people he wished to portray, Benton travelled for four days a week throughout the state, joining fishing and hunting parties, attending politically-themed barbeques and talking with anyone, whether an eminent critic or a plainspoken hillbilly.

The result is a combination of images of joy, despair, labor and laughter that amount to a truthful rendition of Missouri – entirely appropriate for The Show Me State.

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