For the first time in nearly 25 years, a major exhibition shines the light on one of America’s greatest Regionalist painters and his art’s relationship with cinema and visual storytelling.
Only one week remains before an outstanding exhibition of Thomas Hart Benton’s (1889–1975) paintings, murals, drawings, and prints open its doors at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Featuring nearly 100 works, “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood” illuminates the “overlooked relationship between Benton’s art, movie making and visual storytelling in 20th-century America,” as the museum states.

Thomas Hart Benton, “Portrait of a Musician,” 1949, casein, egg tempera, and oil on canvas, 48 1/2 x 32 in.
(c) The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art 2015

Benton was able to cultivate a unique style built on his experiences on silent-movie sets in New Jersey, the first “Hollywood.” Combining traditional techniques with cinematographic storytelling, Benton established a lasting career with works that appealed to a broad range of Americans. Continuing, the museum offers, “The exhibition brings together nearly 100 works by Benton including 50 paintings and murals, as well as a selection of his drawings, prints, and illustrated books. It also presents related ephemera and film clips that highlight the allure of his paintings’ cinematic content, composition, and technical underpinnings.”

Thomas Hart Benton, “Self-Portrait with Rita,” ca. 1924, oil on canvas, 49 x 39 in.
(c) The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art 2015

A highlight of the show is the aptly titled “Hollywood,” a massive 56 x 84-inch painting that beautifully displays the active, crowded scene of an early-20th-century movie set. A partially nude actress stands beneath a classical arch while a team of cameramen and sound and light technicians intently work their various mechanisms. To the left edge of the work, another team of actors, actresses, and technicians film an additional scene. A third and final team can be found in the background, on a dock along the water’s edge. The simple, bold forms and strong colors communicate the narrative with clear effectiveness and virtually no unnecessary detail is included that could distract the viewer.

Thomas Hart Benton, “Shipping Out,” 1942, oil on canvas, 40 x 28 1/2 in.
(c) The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art 2015

Another beautiful and highly graphic image is “Portrait of a Musician,” which displays an African-American figure as he plays an upright bass. The image has a certain clarity and vibrancy that is absolutely captivating, the lines of the figure and instrument undulating organically — almost musically — creating life and movement in the work.
The exhibition is without a doubt a marvelous opportunity to catch a glimpse into the history of America’s popular culture during the early 20th century, and it is sure to leave a lasting impression.  
To learn more, visit The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.

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Andrew Webster is the former Editor of Fine Art Today and worked as an editorial and creative marketing assistant for Streamline Publishing. Andrew graduated from The University of North Carolina at Asheville with a B.A. in Art History and Ceramics. He then moved on to the University of Oregon, where he completed an M.A. in Art History. Studying under scholar Kathleen Nicholson, he completed a thesis project that investigated the peculiar practice of embedded self-portraiture within Christian imagery during the 15th and early 16th centuries in Italy.


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