THOMAS HART BENTON: A Life. By Justin Wolff. Farrar, Straus. 432 pages. $40.
In 1954, when the Whitney Museum of American Art was moving from Greenwich Village to its new Midtown Manhattan building, officials let Thomas Hart Benton know that they no longer had space for his mural, “The Arts of Life in America,” and hinted that perhaps he should take it back.
It was a shock to the artist and emblematic of his increasing irrelevance in an art world that had embraced Abstract Expressionism and other modernist movements.
Benton is rarely mentioned these days among the most influential American artists. He had his greatest impact and popularity during the Great Depression of the 1930s for which his art seemed ideally fit, though he was active as an artist for nearly seven decades.
Yet his paintings still evoke a grounded, brilliantly colored fantasy of common Americana that is unique to this day.
Benton (1889-1975) was a man of many contradictions. A child of privilege (he was the son of a U.S. congressman and the grandson of a senator), he fashioned himself as a populist. He is generally associated with the Midwest, where he was born and where he died.
Yet after studying at the Art Institute in Chicago, he made his way to Paris in 1906, where he studied at the Academie Julian.
Benton then lived in New York, where he created much of his best work while also teaching at the Art Students League. He spent most of his summers in Martha’s Vineyard.
Swimming against the tide of art trends, Benton moved away from abstract painting, embracing representational work, developing aspects of his style from masters such as Michelangelo and Rubens. He was the founder, leading voice and practitioner of a movement called Regionalism, which seems a misnomer, as he always sought a wide audience and desired to be influential.
A wrestler and boxer in his youth, Benton’s life was one of self-created conflict. A talented artist with a vision and the strength of his convictions, he was in constant battle with the art world establishment in both his writings and his interactions, often alienating even friends and colleagues.
Justin Wolff’s new biography of the artist covers all this ground in a somewhat disjointed way, yet the portrait that emerges is of a complex and interesting man whose life and work deserve a solid place in the annals of American art.
Reviewer Michael Nelson, a writer based in Charleston