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In the U. S. opposition to such outlandish art first took root in the Midwest. A small group of native painters began to offer direct representation in place of introspective abstractions. To them what could be seen in their own land?streets, fields, shipyards, factories and those who people such places?became more important than what could be felt about far off places. From Missouri, from Kansas, from Ohio, from Iowa, came men whose work was destined to turn the tide of artistic taste in the U. S. Of these earthy Midwesterners none represents the objectivity and purpose of their school more clearly than Missouri's Thomas Hart Benton.
At 17, Artist Benton gave up a job as surveyor's assistant in the lead and zinc district outside Joplin to do newspaper cartoons. A bad art student in .Chicago, he went on to Paris where he speedily absorbed and copied all the latest French fads. Six Wartime months in the U. S. Navy knocked French Impressionism out of him, prompted him to develop a style of his own which he first exhibited in a series of realistic watercolors of War activities around Norfolk, Va.
Today Thomas Benton's fame rests chiefly on three murals. One is in the Library of Manhattan's Whitney Museum of American Art. Another is in the New School for Social Research. The third and best known, a huge panorama painted for the Indiana building at the Century of Progress Fair, is now stored in an Indianapolis warehouse because the State lacks a suitable place to exhibit it. All three have a nervous electric quality which is peculiarly Benton's and which his pupils often try but fail to imitate. Painted from recognizable observations, all three portray such typical Americana as revivalists, bootleggers, stevedores, politicians, soda clerks.
Benton has had ample opportunity to study the U. S. he loves to paint. He was born in Neosho, Mo. in 1889. Says he: "My father [Congressman Maecenas Eason Benton] was a lawyer and politician. He came from Tennessee shortly after the Civil War, riding a horse and knocking the snakes out of his path with a long stick. He was a great-nephew of Thomas Hart Benton, the Senator from Missouri and Andrew Jackson's lieutenant. My family table talk was entirely devoted to law and politics. Southwest Missouri was, and is yet in those parts in which the automobile road has not penetrated, a backwoods country with a characteristic backwoods culture. Turkey shoots, country school hoedowns, hunting (possum, squirrel, quail and other small game) and hay wagon parties were sports with which I was familiar."