The Thomas Hart Benton mural, America Today, is on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art from Sept. 30, 2014 to April 19, 2015. The exhibit features sketches Benton made for the 1930 mural, a reconstruction of how it was originally displayed, and related works of that time period. The painting consists of 10 panels filled with scenes of American life during the Roaring Twenties ranging from farmers to financiers, teachers to factory workers, and miners to entertainers. It was the artist’s first commission for a large-scale mural and remains one of his greatest works.
Benton (1889-1975) was born in the small town of Neosho, MO, in a family of prominent politicians. His father was a lawyer and a four-term U.S. congressman; his great-uncle was Missouri’s first U.S. senator. The artist spent time growing up in Washington, D.C. and Missouri but had no interest in pursuing a political career. With his mother’s encouragement, he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and then went to Paris. After a few years, he returned to the U.S. to settle in New York and sketched people going about their daily lives. His rural, Midwestern roots served as the basis for his work, painting working class people in realistic situations.
The new building for the New School for Social Research was scheduled to open, Jan. 1, 1931. Benton was commissioned to paint a mural for the third floor boardroom. He had made numerous sketches during the 1920s and used those for ideas. The mural would be a cross-section of jobs and life in America and would cover the four walls of a room that was 30×22 feet. Each panel was given its own name. The largest panel, Instruments of Power, faced visitors as they entered the boardroom. Benton illustrated the Machine Age with scenes of industry and technology including a dirigible, airplane and speeding train. This is the only panel that does not contain people. It focuses on the industry that was propelling America into the future.
Three panels on a side wall were named for sections of the country. Deep South, Midwest, and Changing West show major agricultural regions and how farming methods have changed over time. The panels also illustrate labor by rich and poor, black and white citizens. The opposite side wall also had three panels. City Building, Steel and Coal focus on the industries of the East Coast and the laborers who perform those jobs. The coal miner in the scene is so exhausted, he can barely stand and, in the background, black smoke spews from factories into the atmosphere.
The wall where visitors entered the room had two panels. City Activities with Dance Hall was on one side of the door and City Activities with Subway was on the other side of the door. Both of these portrayed forms of entertainment during the 1920s. The nightlife of Wall Street to family entertainment is illustrated with speakeasies, dance halls, movie theaters and contains many people ranging from acrobats, strippers, boxers to Salvation Army singers.
The last panel was not installed until after the mural had opened to the public. While Benton was working on America Today, the effects of the Great Depression had not become obvious yet. He added a panel over the door, between the two “city activity” scenes, calling it Outreaching Hands. This depicts the breadlines that were cropping up around the country.
The Benton mural remained at the New School for more than 50 years. It was beginning to show signs of wear due to a lack of preservation protection. It was sold to AXA Equitable, formerly known as Equitable Life, in 1984 with the understanding that it was to be kept intact and would remain in New York City. The painting went through two years of cleaning and restoration before it was installed in AXA’s headquarters. When the company moved in 1996 to new headquarters, the painting moved, too, and was installed in the lobby. It stayed there until January, 2012, when it had to be removed for building renovation. As a result, AXA Equitable donated the Thomas Hart Benton mural, America Today, for future display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A few years after that mural was completed, Benton returned to Missouri. He painted A Social History of Missouri for the House Lounge in the State Capitol in Jefferson City. This mural covers all four walls and has scene after scene of life in Missouri from the early fur traders and explorers to life in St. Louis and Kansas City during the 1930s. Some of the images are controversial but he left them in because it was a part of Missouri history.
He created several other murals and won awards both in the U.S. and in Europe. The medium he used was egg tempera which contains egg yolks. He last mural was for the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum in Nashville, TN. He died before it was finished. The mural, The Sources of Country Music, remains unsigned. Some art critics felt Benton’s work was too folksy while others appreciated it. America Today tells the story of ordinary people who lived and worked in the 1920s. This Thomas Hart Benton mural is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for everyone to see this part of New York City history and a retrospective of the nation.
By Cynthia Collins