New York inspired this 1930s masterpiece mural

Biographies of painter Thomas Hart Benton usually describe him as a Regionalist, an art-world misfit who eschewed the Abstract style of the 1920s and 1930s and painted images of everyday life in the American heartland.


But Benton did live in New York in the teens and 1920s, and he drew partly on his experiences in the city when he created his 1931 mural masterpiece, “America Today.”


Asked by the New School to paint a mural for the boardroom of the college’s new building at 66 West 12th Street, Hart produced a 10-panel monument to American life—depicting the rise of industrialization and technology as well as the harvesting of cotton and wheat, along with allusions to societal inequality and hardship.


[Above, Madison Square Park by Thomas Hart Benton (1924), not part of the mural]

Two panels in particular were inspired by New York. “City Activities with Subway” (top image) shows the energetic street life at the time: burlesque shows, sidewalk preachers, tabloid newspapers, and subway riders looking in every direction except at one another.

bentonportrait1935“City Activities With Dance Hall” (second image) captures the rush of big business, going to the theater, drinking at a bar (Prohibition was still in effect), and letting loose by dancing.

In a 2014 Smithsonian article about “America Today,” Paul Theroux quoted Benton. “’Every detail of every picture is a thing I myself have seen and known. Every head is a real person drawn from life.’”

Taken down by the New School (who reportedly paid Benton in tempura paint, not money) in the 1980s, Benton’s masterpiece moved to the lobby of 1290 Sixth Avenue. It’s now part of the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[Above: Thomas Hart Benton, 1935]

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3 Responses to “New York inspired this 1930s masterpiece mural”

  1. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    Named for his Uncle, Tom Benton is the pride of Southwest Missouri (he was born in Neosho!) As a youth, Benton stopped in a Main St. bar in Joplin, Mo. to see a large oil of a ‘nekkid woman.’ Bar patrons thought the teenager should not to be stare’n at such an image. He explained he was an artist and to prove it, he sketched on a napkin. The patrons took the drawing to the nearby Joplin newspaper and they hired him on the spot for their staff.

    Your Ephemeral presentation shows the mural section that features a dancing woman in a red dress on the left side of the painting; on the lower right side is a dark haired man in a blue shirt – THAT is Benton — ahhh, a self-portrait!

    Harry Truman was not an art lover and had to be convinced to hire this regionalist painter. Benton did an impressive mural above an entry door in The Truman Library (in Independence, Mo / just outside of Kansas City.) The artist gallantly invited the elderly former-President to paint a couple of strokes so he could say he assisted.
    When Truman died, a small, select crowd were invited to physically attend the final graveside activities. The scene was broadcast on TV. A network commentator studied a trio standing together and said, during the broadcast: “I know everyone here – however I have no idea WHO these people are; They must have been important to Truman.” The threesome were Mr. Joyce Hall (founder of Hallmark Cards in nearby KC, Mo.) and Thomas Hart & his wife, Rita Benton.

    I was told a bit of whimsey by Walt Bodine, a long time, beloved KC radio personality. The world famous artist lived in Kansas City and the pair of aged men liked to spend time together. (It helps to know both Benton and Bodine were very short in stature.) One late afternoon, the pair were a bit ‘blotto’ on whiskey when suddenly Benton swung towards Bodine and slurred: “Walt, I like to drink and ACT BIG!” Hahahahahahaaaa….

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you Audrey–and I had no idea about the self-portrait he snuck into the lower part of that panel!

  3. Joe R Says:

    The Met Museum have done a good job with Benton’s great mural. They have housed it in a gallery that matches the dimensions of the original New School conference room. The mural wraps you on fours sides as was originally intended. When the work was in the Equitable (AXA) Building it was laid out flat on one wall.

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