February 16 through June 3, 2018
Born in Neosho, Missouri, in 1889, Thomas Hart Benton began his art education at age 16 in the Art Institute of Chicago and at age 19 studied in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Returning to America to become a "child controversy," Benton enjoyed one of the most dramatic and interesting careers in American art.
Deeply moved by the attack on Pearl Harbor, shortly thereafter he completed "The Year of Peril," a series of grim and powerful war paintings financed by Abbott Laboratories. In 1943 he collaborated with Georges Schreiber in producing the Abbott Collection of Submarine Paintings, a project largely executed aboard the American submarine USS Dorado (SS 248), which was later lost in action with all hands.
His awards included the Jennie Sesnan Medal of the New York Architectural League and Wanamaker's Purchase Prize. Benton is represented in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Sheldon Swope Art Gallery, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, City Art Museum of St. Louis, Museum of Modern Art, California Palace of the Legion of Honor and others. His murals are in the Missouri State Capitol, Indiana University, Whitney Museum of American Art and the New School for Social Research.
Benton died in 1975.
Shortly after the end of the war, Abbott Laboratories donated the wartime art it had financed to the U.S. government, and that is how these particular works became part of the Navy's art collection.
A heroic period in American history as captured by one of the quintessential American painters of the era: That's the story with Thomas Hart Benton and the Navy, an exhibition of steel, smoke, saltwater, and sinew all captured in a signature style.Benton, from a family of powerful political patriarchs, credited his mother for supporting his early studies at the Art Institute of Chicago at 16 and in Paris three years later. When World War I interrupted his artistic training, he put his blossoming artistic skills to good use. He was in the Navy, stationed in Norfolk, tasked with painting ships entering the harbor to document their camouflage schemes.
Over the next two decades Benton became a star as both painter and muralist and helped establish a new art movement known as Regionalism. Along with fellow painters Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, he rejected Cubism and other European trends in abstraction, depicting instead familiar stories from the American heartland in a seductive and lyrical style.
One of the first color covers of Time magazine featured Benton, a pugnacious, hard-drinking man of many talents. He was a dandy writer, and as a harmonica player, he was good enough to cut a record.
Benton was on a speaking tour when he learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and he secluded himself for six weeks to produce eight powerful—some would say disturbing—paintings for the war effort. The Year of Peril brought him to the attention of Abbott Laboratories, a Chicago pharmaceutical company that wound up underwriting Benton's work throughout the war.
Abbott later donated many of Benton's World War II era paintings to the United States Naval History and Heritage Command, which generously lent them for this exhibition.
Of special poignance here are submarine paintings from the USS Dorado (SS 248). Just weeks after Benton finished his work aboard the sub, it went down in action with all hands lost.
Thomas Hart Benton, She's Off, watercolor on paper, 1944. All images courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, D.C.
Thomas Hart Benton, Up Periscope, oil on canvas, 1944. All images courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, D.C.
Thomas Hart Benton and the Navy