Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889–1975) was the scion of a Midwestern political family; his father, Colonel Maecenas Benton, served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from Missouri. Encouraged by his mother, Benton followed the bohemian path taken by many aspiring American artists, studying in Paris from 1909 to 1912. He returned to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War I and then moved to New York, where he taught at the Art Students League, honed his own style, and mentored a young Jackson Pollock. In counterpoint to the Post-Impressionist and Cubist abstraction that were in the ascendant following the Armory Show in 1913, Benton began to develop a mannerist figurative idiom later associated with American Scene Painting or Regionalism.
Toward the end of the 1920s, Benton let it be known among Manhattan art aficionados that he wanted to paint a major mural. His opportunity came in 1930. The energetic first president of the New School for Social Research, Alvin Johnson, had engaged the New York–based, Austrian born architect Joseph Urban to design a modern building befitting the experimental character of the fledgling institution and had commissioned José Clemente Orozco to paint a mural cycle.1 Orozco’s invitation was finessed by writer and gallerist Alma Reed, a member of the literary salon known as the Delphic Circle, to which Benton and his wife, Rita Piacenza Benton, also belonged. Johnson was happy to incorporate the participation of another artist into his vision for 66 West 12th Street, and he and Rita Benton reportedly worked out the arrangements at a party in Greenwich Village: Benton would produce a mural in egg tempera for the boardroom in the new building, and the school would rent a studio for the artist and pay for his materials, including the eggs.2 Benton also delivered a series of New School lectures titled Craftsman and Art. These talks, as his biographer observes,
likely emphasized the artisanal methods of art production rather than its more romantic myths. One reason that Benton favored working with egg tempera, for instance, was its association with the Italian Renaissance, a period he admired as much for its system of training, apprenticeship, and craftsmanship as for its grand manner. Painting, Benton believed, was a manual labor as much as it was an intellectual exercise.3
According to Johnson, who visited the work-in-progress daily, Benton would assemble sketches, then sculpt a “little garden of the needed solids in clay and study it painfully” before rendering a distemper underpainting on linen-covered panels.4 Despite this laborious process, America Today was completed in less than a year. Influenced by sketching trips across the rural South and by contemporary cinema, as well as Renaissance models and the work of Mexican muralists such as Orozco, Benton’s ten-panel suite presents a sweeping narrative of the national experience, juxtaposing scenes of labor, industry, and leisure in settings ranging from Eastern cities to Midwestern farmland, coalfield to prairie, steel mill to movie house.
As The New School’s student body expanded during the postwar boom, the boardroom was repurposed as a classroom, with a concomitant increase in traffic that endangered the fragile murals. Benton returned twice (in 1956 and 1968) to clean and repair them. But by 1982, the ongoing need for conservation—coupled with the work’s potential as a source of needed revenue—prompted the school to sell the mural cycle to the Maurice Segoura Gallery. No secondary buyer was forthcoming for the entire suite, and it seemed that the gallery might separate the panels for sale at auction; this attracted the attention of Mayor Ed Koch, who campaigned to keep America Today in New York City. In 1984, the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States (now AXA) bought the complete cycle and installed it in the lobby of its midtown headquarters; the firm brought the cycle along to a second site when the headquarters moved in 1996.5 In 2012, AXA donated America Today to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it is installed in a dedicated gallery that recreates the original room at 66 West 12th Street. The work was celebrated in the 2014 exhibition Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered and remains on view in the American Modern wing.6 Critical consensus now ranks America Today among the most significant accomplishments in American art of the interwar period.
- Johnson had initially been named director, but became president in 1930.
- Justin Wolff, Thomas Hart Benton: A Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 202.
- Ibid., 203.
- Ibid., 202.
- The two headquarters were at 787 Seventh Avenue and 1290 Avenue of the Americas.
- The exhibition was organized by Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, and Randall Griffey, associate curator of Modern and Contemporary Art (September 30, 2014–April 19, 2015). See https://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2014/thomas-hart-benton-america-today (accessed June 4, 2018).