Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889–1975),
tempera on canvas mounted on panel, 33 x 40 inches, 83.82 x 101.6 cm
Gift of the James A. Douglas Memorial Foundation (1971), 1952.11; Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY,
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An outspoken populist, Missouri native Thomas Hart Benton used his art to extol what he saw as ordinary American virtues. His subjects ranged from colorful, rough-hewn Midwestern characters to broad epics of American life and history tinged with irony and social commentary. Proclaiming a preference for the barroom booster over the art-world patron, he produced many murals and inexpensive lithographs in the belief that this would give greater public access to his work. In the depths of the Depression, Benton's vigorous images seemed to many Americans to express the enduring spirit of the nation.
Beneath the bravado of anti-intellectualism, however, lay an artist fully in touch with the art and aesthetic theory of the past and present. Benton studied in Chicago and Paris, read art history and literature extensively, and spent more than twenty years in New York City. His signature realist style reveals debts to such various historical art movements as sixteenth-century Mannerism, seventeenth-century Baroque, and twentieth-century Synchromism and Cubism. In 1934, Benton was featured on the cover of TIME magazine, where he was identified as a Regionalist along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry. Recognizing the significance of this newly defined persona, Benton fulfilled his role as a Midwestern artist the following year by proclaiming that New York had lost its dynamism and moving back to Missouri.
Painted five years later — just before his tempestuous departure from the Kansas City Art Institute — The Hailstorm, with its rural theme, vibrant color, tilted perspective, lanky figures, and undulating landscape, is quintessential Benton. Here he shows the timeless drama between man and nature, although national memories of the previous decade's dust bowls and farm failures gave it more than passing topicality. Benton's landscape has the familiar roll of the local countryside and boasts the presence of the state's notoriously stubborn creature, the Missouri mule. Stressing that an artist should depict what he or she knows best, Benton pointed out that his understanding of farm life led to a change in this composition: after completing a watercolor study for The Hailstorm, he realized that he must add in the final work the figure behind the mule, for no self-respecting farmer would leave an animal in the field during such a storm.