This ambitious exhibition of Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975), the first in more than twenty-five years, reveals the important but overlooked connection between Benton’s experience working for the film industry and his career as an artist. Until now, no exhibition has presented the allure of Benton’s paintings as cinematic in their content and composition, or compared the fascinating technical underpinnings of Benton’s canvases to the cinematic process itself.
Around 1917, Benton worked on silent movie stage sets in Fort Lee, New Jersey—the first “Hollywood.” Between 1937, when Life magazine sent the artist to Hollywood on commission, and 1954, Benton painted five major works for projects related to motion pictures. This exhibition is the first to connect these experiences to the rest of the artist’s career. Benton was acutely aware of contemporary storytelling’s shift toward movies, and he developed a cinematic style of painting that melded art historical traditions with more recent movie-production techniques to tell stories that appealed to a broad swath of Americans.
American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood includes approximately one hundred works by this quintessential American artist: fifty paintings and murals along with a selection of his drawings, prints, and illustrated books. In addition, the exhibition presents rarely seen archival photographs and related ephemera, as well as film clips and stills.
American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, in collaboration with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. The exhibition was made possible through a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).