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Monday, 27 April 2015 16:51

American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood

Thomas Hart Benton, Self Portrait With Rita, c. 1924. Oil on canvas, 49 x 39-3/8 in. Thomas Hart Benton, Self Portrait With Rita, c. 1924. Oil on canvas, 49 x 39-3/8 in. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource, NY. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Do you ever think about what makes a good story—for a painting? American artist Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) did. A century ago, Benton wanted to become the major American artist of his day. Although trained in Chicago and Paris and a member of the vanguard modern art community in New York around 1915, Benton had yet to make the kind of defining contribution to the art world that his ancestors Senator Thomas Hart Benton and John Charles Fremont had made to American political history. Casting about for opportunities, the ambitious painter looked to Fort Lee, New Jersey—the “first Hollywood.” He started working there on silent-era motion-picture productions in various artistic capacities, such as painting sets for director Rex Ingram. The appeal of the emerging motion picture industry and its influential new form of storytelling were clear to Benton. Epic themes such as cultural identity, westward expansion, tolerance, and the American Dream were worthy of movie screens—why not canvas (Fig. 1)?

Benton developed a cinematic painting style to communicate stories about American history and society as memorably as the movies. He learned to capture qualities intrinsic to motion pictures: the illusion of three-dimensional space; rhythmic motion; the glow of projected light...

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