Benton as an illustrator

Thomas Hart Benton, Three River's South, Young Abe LincolnBenton’s skill as a “visual historian” made him an ideal illustrator and natural storyteller.  His body of work contains an impressive number of illustrations.

In the 30s, The Limited Editions Club of New York asked Benton to illustrated special editions of three Mark Twain’s books.  These special editions were a part of a series matching authors with artists.  Benton and Twain made a natural pairing.  Benton “embraced Twain as a kindred spirit, someone who was as inspired by the land and people of Missouri just as much as he was,” Joan Stack said.  Stack is the curator of art collections at The State Historical Society of Missouri and discusses the complementary nature of Mark Twain and Thomas Hart Benton’s work here.)  The stories of Mark Twain had already become familiar subject matter for Benton:  his 1935 murals for the Missouri capitol contained a vignette of Huck Finn and Jim, on which a later lithograph was based.

In 1945, Benton illustrated The Oregon Trail, Francis Parkman’s 1847 book.  The series of illustrations, rendered in vibrant watercolors, can be found at the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney, Nebraska.  The works were featured in an NET video series in 2006 highlighting major works of art in Nebraskan museum collections.  View the video here.

In 1953, Benton completed a series of 13 drawings for Virginia Eifert’s Three Rivers South: A Story of Young Abe Lincoln. (See a selection of the illustrations here.)

Henry Adams reproduces some of these drawings in his book Thomas Hart Benton: Drawing from Life.  He writes: The imagery of these works, with their steamboats and river characters, resembles that of his earlier designs for Life on the Mississippi.  However they are far more polished, even a bit slick – rather in the manner of Benton’s late historical murals.  The sculptural handling of the figures and the somewhat academic technique suggest that Benton may have modeled these works on wash drawings by his famous Missouri predecessor George Caleb Bingham.

With his drawings, Benton gives life and voice to characters far removed from our time.  Lincoln becomes a larger-than-life adventurer, spirited and passionate.  Denton Offutt, the Illinois merchant who gave Lincoln one of his first jobs at Offutt’s general store, becomes a caricature of the slick, well-to-do, business man.  Places are depicted with an energy and attention to detail that correctly suggests Benton knew the locations well.

Along with these illustrations of times past, Benton also illustrated events of his day.  In 1937, Life Magazine hired Benton to travel to Michigan to “take a satirical look at the Fourth of July picnics of the purported Communists of the U.A.W. and the purported Fascists of the German-American social clubs.”(Karal Marling, Tom Benton and His Drawings)  The result was a tongue-in-cheek series of drawings reproduced in the July 26, 1937, Life magazine article “Artist Thomas Hart Benton Hunts Communists and Fascists in Michigan.”

Thomas Hart Benton, Nazi Upheavel

Battlefront of Revolutionary Michigan depicts a reporter asleep, legs kicked up on his desk.  Nazi Upheaval in Michigan (shown) depicts a similarly benign scene: a workingman listening to music while nursing his beer.

Benton’s background made him uniquely equipped to present these varying scenes of American history and culture.   The son of a Missouri congressman and the grandson of a U.S. senator, Benton spent time on the campaign trail, giving him a love of American backroads, rivers and towns.  He later traveled extensively through the South.  These experiences gave him a long-lasting desire to create art representative of American ideals and daily life.

Image List:
1. Young Abe Lincoln: Frontispiece
c. 1953, ink, inkwash and gouache
12.87 x 8.5 inches
Frontispiece illustration for Virginia S. Eifert’s “Three Rivers South: The Story of Young Abe Lincoln”
Published in 1953 by Dodd, Mead & Company. New York

2. Nazi Upheaval in Michigan
c. 1937, Ink graphite and sepia wash
12 x 8.75 inches
Illustration for July 26, 1937, Life magazine article
“Artist Thomas Hart Benton Hunts Communists and Fascists in Michigan”

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  1. […] Mark Twain and Tom Benton: Pictures, Prose, and Song, a State Historical Society of Missouri exhibition, explores the artistic relationship between these two masters of their respective fields.  Chosen to illustrate the Limited Editions Club’s version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Benton showed an ability to translate the wit and naturalism of Twain’s words into lyrical and gestural illustrations. The show is on display through September.  Read about Benton’s work as an illustrator. […]



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