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Solving The Benton Puzzle

June 2024
6min read

When the filmmaker Ken Burns asked me three years ago if I’d like to write a documentary film about the painter Thomas Hart Benton, I signed on with enthusiasm for Burns’s work but serious qualms about the subject he had chosen. There really is no accounting for tastes, but Benton’s art has never appealed to me much—too broad, too sentimental, too self-consciously heroic. More important, from the viewpoint of a potential scriptwriter, aspects of Benton’s personality struck me as both unpleasant and inexplicable: Short and chesty, he insisted loudly on his own “genius,” felt compelled to hide his sophistication behind down-home pronouncements about art calculated to appeal to the smallest of small-town minds, and appeared frightened all his adult life of homosexuals, who, he believed, were universally bent on destroying him.

You needn’t like your subject to write adequately about him, but it is very nearly impossible to do so when you are utterly baffled, as I was, by what motivates him, and I actually thought briefly of backing out. But in the course of our work— Thomas Hart Benton has already aired in the Middle West and will be shown nationally on PBS this November—we were fortunate to have the knowing counsel of Henry Adams, the curator of American art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, whose solid, richly illustrated new biography Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original has recently been published (Alfred A. Knopf). Adams admires Benton and makes a strong case for the importance of his art, but he never loads the dice, and his careful research offered us fresh evidence, which, while not excusing Benton’s most puzzling excesses, helped make them understandable.

The outlines of Benton’s career are familiar enough. Born in Neosho, Missouri, in 1889 and trained in Chicago and Paris, he was an avid and eclectic modernist in New York during the 1920s, then turned his back on his contemporaries and their enthusiasms in favor of all-American themes and Italian Renaissance techniques and returned to the Midwest, where, with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, he led the regionalist movement and became for a time the best-known painter in the country. After World War II his art was eclipsed by a new, no less distinctively American school of painting—abstract expressionism. Benton lived and painted on until 1975, long enough to see representational art return to critical favor. “The human figure is coming back into fashion,” he told a reporter not long before his end, “and what are those sons of bitches going to do now? They never learned how to draw.”

Benton was as well known for his bombast as he was for his art. He liked to pretend that this public role had been thrust upon him, but in fact he reveled in it and in the headlines it engendered. “Like movie stars, baseball players and loquacious senators,” he once exulted, “I was soon a figure recognizable in Pullman cars, hotel lobbies, and night clubs. I became a regular public character.” On another occasion he admitted, “I paint sometimes to get people to criticize my work.”

Along the way Benton quarreled with just about everybody, spouting off to the newspapers, as one friend said, whenever he had a tumbler of bourbon in his hand and a reporter within earshot. Academicians and abstractionists, clergymen and Communists, critics and collectors, all felt his scattershot wrath, but he reserved his most savage attacks for homosexuals.

In 1912 he did himself out of a teaching job in Kansas City and fled to New York because he complained too noisily about an Art Institute party to which a handful of visiting vaudevillians came in drag. “Now listen,” he later explained, “I had been to Paris and I’d never seen anything like that. It shocked the hell out of me. … That was something I was absolutely innocent about and I couldn’t stay there.”

In 1935, before fleeing back to Kansas City, he loosed a poisonous farewell blast at the Eastern art world, which had failed to grant him the unmixed accolades he was certain he deserved. Homosexuals, he charged, with their “lisping voice[s] and mincing ways,” had fatally perverted the New York art world. “If young gentlemen, or old ones either, wish to wear women’s underwear and cultivate extraordinary manners it is all right with me. But it is not all right with the art which they affect and cultivate. It is not all right when, by ingratiation or subtle connivance, precious fairies get into positions of power and judge, buy, and exhibit American pictures on a base of nervous whim and under the sway of those overdelicate refinements of taste characteristic of their kind.” Kansas City, he was now sure, would be free of their influence: “The people of the West are highly intolerant of aberration. … Power, in smaller places, is … subject to the scrutiny of strong prejudice.”

But in Benton’s fevered imagination there was apparently no hiding place even there. Six years later—and at the height of his fame—he gratuitously attacked the staff of the museum where he taught as members of “the third sex … even in Missouri we’re full of them. … pretty boys … ballet dancers … who hate my pictures and talk against them.” Not surprisingly, he got himself fired.

Even those closest to him knew something was odd about this obsession. “Tom did a lot of quite unnecessary talking about fairies taking over the art world,” his sister, Mildred, remembered. “He had this violent hatred of homosexuals. There must have been some terrible urge in him that made him do it. His hatred wasn’t natural.”

Now Henry Adams has traced the roots of Benton’s homophobia—and of the crusty belligerence with which he often greeted his admirers—back to the troubled Missouri boyhood his paintings made appear idyllic.

His father, Maecenas Eason Benton—“M.E.” to his cronies- was a squat, combative, harddrinking populist lawyer who billed himself as the “Little Giant of the Ozarks” and served four noisy terms in Congress. To him, artists were “mincing, bootlicking” pantywaists. “That I should even think of becoming an artist gave him a sense of outrage,” his son remembered. “Such a thing was unthinkable. It would never do for a Benton to descend so low.” Young Tom was meant for politics and the law, like his father and Missouri’s first senator, the swaggering great-uncle after whom the boy was named.

His mother, Lizzie Wise Benton, was eighteen years younger than M.E., a pious, handsome, high-strung woman with lofty social and artistic ambitions who swooned when crossed and came both to loathe her husband’s touch and to scorn his countrified constituents. In Washington the Bentons were known as “Beauty and the Beast.”

Their marriage was soon a war, with young Tom as the prize. “The hopes of both parents,” Adams writes, “were centered on … Tom … Three [other] children were born to the couple … but for both Tom and his parents they were just afterthoughts.” M.E. found he could annoy his wife satisfactorily by taking the boy hunting and fishing and speechmaking among his backwoods friends; his mother got hers back by encouraging young Tom to draw and paint, nurturing the remarkable gift for sketching he first displayed at six.

As well known for his bombast as he was for his art, Thomas Hart Benton reveled in his fame and the headlines it engendered.

The boy came to see all the attention lavished upon him as somehow his due. “Tom was very sure that he was always right,” his sister remembered, “and he was very talkative. At meals, my father would sometimes send him away from the table because he insisted on ‘What I think,’ and ‘What I do,’ and ‘What I will do,’ and it was always, as my father said, ‘I,’ ‘I,’ ‘I.’ My father called him ‘Big I.’”

Torn between his parents, he fought to establish an identity of his own. Always small and slight for his age—as an adult he stood less than five feet three and still sometimes bought his clothes in the boys’ department—he was frequently forced to prove his toughness against small-town boys who ridiculed his girlish hobby and the sissified big-city clothes his mother insisted he wear. “It don’t pay me no mind,” he would say, no matter how hard he was hit.

Lizzie Benton eventually won the war for her son’s loyalty. Tom came to see himself as her protector within the household; he became an artist; and when his parents eventually separated, he sided with his mother. But the battle left lasting scars that dangerously distorted his perception of the world. The father’s contempt for art and artists as somehow unmanly remained stubbornly alive within the son and was further reinforced when Tom discovered that all three of the older men who did the most to encourage him to stick with art in the face of his father’s opposition had been homosexuals. (One of them made a drunken attempt to seduce him while he was still an art student—an event that Benton recounted in The Intimate Story , a fragmentary, unpublished autobiography upon which Adams draws for the first time. The offhand tone in which the artist describes this betrayal is belied by his compulsion to include every harrowing detail; clearly it deeply affected him.)

If M.E. Benton’s boy were ever to feel comfortable in the world his father despised, he had to prove himself utterly different from his fellow artists, to expunge every remotely feminine trait from his own makeup, and to deride anyone else who weakly let his softer side show. “He had a great persona of a hard-drinking tough guy who happened to be an artist…,” his friend the novelist Dan James remembered. “His pride was to be able to drink with anybody and fight with anybody … and so forth. A real he-man .”

There was a good deal that was desperate in that lifelong performance but, newly armed by Henry Adams with the sad facts of Benton’s youth, it is now possible for us to see in the leathery, boastful old man who inhabits our film something of the confused little boy who struggled to find his own way between the contrasting worlds of his mismatched parents.

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