Thomas Hart Benton at Peabody Essex
Thomas Hart Benton 1889-1975
This stylized self portrait is the first painting one sees upon walking through the doors of the current exhibit of Thomas Hart Benton’s art at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The artist shows himself and his wife in movie-star leisure, posing in stylized splendor. Benton is holding a staff as if he is Moses-as-artist (or Moses the movie star) ready to guide us through history and events.
Benton’s impressive career output of paintings, illustrations and drawings captured historical moments and impressions of ordinary American citizens of his own day in large, liquid figures. He illustrated movie posters and books. He produced World War II paintings meant to shock complacent Americans with images of Axis enemies. Benton said that history was to him not a study but a drama. His marketable and predictable vision made large and lasting statements about big themes of American life and culture.
When Benton found his style–like a writer finding his voice–he ran with it through the social and cultural changes of his day. His inflated, wobbly human figures dominate the eye with heroic movement. His paintings and illustrations, not to mention his ambition, fit nicely with the simplified, attractive distortions of Hollywood in its early years.
Only at the end did Benton’s vision change. Human figures and human history faded against a background of an American landscape with the large tree chopped, the rock formations flattened by time, the river of exploration frozen smooth, and a buffalo family of three separated from the herd.