Amon Carter Museum of American Art presents American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood

Release date: 
November 30, 2015

FORT WORTH, Texas—The Amon Carter Museum of American Art presents the first major traveling exhibition about American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) in more than 25 years—American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, on view February 6–May 1, 2016. The exhibition explores how the motion picture industry ignited Benton’s creative imagination and reveals Benton’s own involvement with silent pictures and Hollywood productions. Benton’s awareness that movies were the best and most popular means of telling American tales inspired a signature artistic style that melded centuries-old traditions with movie-production techniques to create images that appealed to a broad range of Americans.

This major reevaluation of Benton’s art—the first since 1989—brings together nearly 100 works by Benton, including more than 30 of his paintings and murals, as well as a selection of his drawings, prints and illustrated books in juxtaposition with selected scenes from some of Hollywood’s greatest films. Benton’s art from the 1920s through the 1960s takes visitors on a journey through America’s myths and into its national character. Admission is free.

Benton wanted to become the major American artist of his time. He trained in Chicago and Paris and was a member of New York’s artistic vanguard; but, by his mid-20s, Benton had yet to make the kind of defining contribution to the art world that his ancestors, U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton and John Charles Frémont, had made to the nation’s political history. Casting about for work and opportunities, Benton became a set painter on silent film productions in Fort Lee, New Jersey—the nation’s “first Hollywood.”

“Benton developed a modern cinematic painting style to communicate epic narratives as memorably as the movies of his day,” says Austen Barron Bailly, George Putnam Curator of American Art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and one of the show’s leading organizers. “He wanted to capture the feel of motion pictures on canvas: the illusion of three-dimensional space, rhythmic motion and the glow of projected light.” To achieve this, Benton adopted techniques used by 16th-century Italian painters to sculpt and illuminate clay models before sketching the forms to work up a final painting. Early filmmakers also adopted these Old Master techniques to study scene composition. Benton’s meticulous artistic process parallels the storyboard-to-final-take methods developed by the film industry.

Benton became acutely aware of the motion picture industry’s rising influence and mass appeal. Themes of cultural identity, westward expansion, prejudice, tolerance and the American Dream were given epic treatment on movie screens, and Benton sought to paint them. Like the movies, murals are a form of public art, so Benton embarked on a self-commissioned, independently produced mural series, American Historical Epic. This sweeping series, painted between 1920 and 1928, runs to more than 60 feet in length and appears in the exhibition.

Benton selected episodes from American history familiar from 1920s silent films, but he depicted the nation’s past in unconventional ways to engage the hot-button issues of the day: citizenship, race relations and national identity. As Benton explained, “History was not a scholarly study for me but a drama.” Simultaneously, Benton started traveling regularly around the country in search of distinctly American subject matter. Like Hollywood, he recognized typecasting as a way to transform individuals into a cast of American characters and personalities, among them bootleggers, musicians and cotton pickers. Inspired by his characterizations, 20th Century Fox commissioned Benton to create a series of lithographs in 1940 to promote John Ford’s filmed adaptation of John Steinbeck’s best-selling novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Benton’s celebrated mural cycles such as America Today (1930–31, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) defined him as a public artist and made him famous. His self-portrait appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in 1934. In 1937 he published his autobiography, An Artist in America, and LIFE magazine sent him to Hollywood on assignment to portray the industry at the height of its Golden Age—when two-thirds of Americans went to the movies every week. The artist made it clear that he was interested not in celebrity culture, but in the stories being told on the big screen and how they were produced behind the scenes. Of his time in California, Benton wrote: “I am not a Hollywood news column fan, and I have not read any books about the place. I know it only through the direct experiences of an artist interested in making pictures of America and American things.”

Benton believed that ordinary people played just as vital a role in the making of history and myth as historical figures or movie stars. With exacting detail and immersive scale, his 1937–38 painting Hollywood captures the realities of a bustling film set: a scantily clad actress stands goddess-like in the center as workers scurry around her operating booms, lights and hydraulic lifts. During his month-long assignment in Hollywood, Benton used hundreds of graphite sketches to create 40 finished ink-and-wash drawings. The exhibition includes more than a dozen of these revealing images, which closely describe the culture, mechanics and politics of the film industry.

When America was drawn into World War II, Benton rapidly produced Year of Peril, a mural series intended to issue a “wake-up call” to his fellow countrymen and women. “War Art Creates Sensation” is the title of the 1942 Paramount Newsreel featuring Benton and these propaganda paintings. Informed both by Hollywood motifs and the artist’s personal memories of seeing soldiers departing for war, Benton painted Shipping Out in 1942. The composition recalls the final scene of the acclaimed anti-war movie from 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front, when each soldier turns to lock eyes with the viewer and bid a final farewell.

In the 1950s and 60s, Benton revisited the American West and began painting landscapes of the Great Plains, the Grand Tetons and the Rocky Mountains. This “grand scenery,” as Benton called it, inspired him to explore the visual vocabulary of Hollywood Westerns and to think of his palette as akin to the bold tones and rich saturation of Technicolor.

Benton’s final Hollywood commission was a 1954 promotional painting for The Kentuckian, starring Burt Lancaster as “Big Eli” and Donald MacDonald as “Little Eli.” Accompanied by their faithful hound, the characters are shown mid-quest as they head westward to establish a new life outside civilized society. The distant undulating landscape of the West beckons the travelers to this mythic realm, where blue skies, freedom and a new beginning await.

Visitors to the exhibition will not only gain an appreciation for Benton’s work from many different phases of his career, but they will also experience a condensed history of Hollywood through some of its most celebrated movies on nearly a dozen screens throughout the gallery spaces. “Looking at Benton’s paintings in combination with clips from some of the greatest movies of the heyday of cinematic history enhances our understanding of the aesthetics of both the movies and Benton’s signature style. Movie buffs and lovers of painting will equally be at home in the galleries,” says Maggie Adler, assistant curator at the Amon Carter.

Visitors can also mimic Benton’s creative process by selecting a backdrop, placing wood figures in front of it and lighting the scene with clamp lamps. After staging the scene, visitors are encouraged to share their creation on social media with the exhibition hashtag #ACMbenton.

A 240-page publication published by Peabody Essex Museum and DelMonico Books Prestel accompanies the exhibition. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, featuring in-depth essays, full-color images and a richly illustrated timeline, is available for $40 in the Museum Store.

Peabody Essex Museum | Salem, Massachusetts | June 6, 2015–September 7, 2015
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art | Kansas City, Missouri | October 10, 2015–January 3, 2016
Amon Carter Museum of American Art | Fort Worth, Texas | February 6, 2016–May 1, 2016
Milwaukee Art Museum | Milwaukee, Wisconsin | June 9, 2016–September 5, 2016

American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in collaboration with the Amon Carter Museum of American Art and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Austen Barron Bailly, the George Putnam Curator of American Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, is the lead curator for this exhibition. Jake Milgram Wien, independent curator and historian, and Margaret C. Conrads, Director of Curatorial Affairs at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, serve as co-curators. Matthew Bernstein, Professor of Film and Media Studies at Emory University, serves as film curator. The exhibition was made possible in part by Bank of America and a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Celebrating 50 Years of Excellence, with additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.

“We’re proud to deepen our commitment to the arts especially here in Fort Worth by continuing our partnership with one of our local cultural treasures, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, in presenting the American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood exhibition,” says Mike Pavell, Fort Worth Market President, Bank of America. “At Bank of America, our support of the arts reflects our belief that the arts matter: they are a powerful tool that can provide pathways to greater cultural understanding helping economies thrive, connecting individuals with each other and across cultures, and educating and enriching societies.”

Film Series Second Sunday in February, March and April at 1:30 p.m.
A Star Is Born–February 14; reservations open January 1
The Grapes of Wrath–March 13; reservations open February 1
They Died With Their Boots On–April 10; reservations open March 1
This program is made possible in part by a grant from Humanities Texas, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Community Program Art in the Dark
Thursday, February 18, 5:30–¬9:30 p.m.

Book Club The Grapes of Wrath
Thursday, March 3, 6 p.m.
Reservations open February 1

Family Workshop Art Discovery: Hollywood
Saturday, April 30, 10:30 a.m.
Reservations open March 1

Large print label booklets are also available for pick up in the galleries.