Benton was the son of a popular Missouri congressman and the namesake of his grandfather, a prominent U.S. senator. He spent much of his youth traveling with his father on the campaign trail and emerged from this experience with a love for America and its back roads.
Benton continued his travels as an adult, this time exposing himself to an extensive panorama of American experience. He joined artists John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood
In 1907, Benton left Missouri to study at the Art Institute in Chicago and the Academie Julian in Paris. During his time in Paris, Benton experimented with Impressionism, Pointilism, Synchronism and Fauvism. His work showed the varied invluence of Edouard Manet and Paul Cezanne, and he forged ties with the modernist crowd: Leo Stein, John Marin, Morgan Russell and Stanton MacDonald-Wright.
In 1911, Benton returned to the United States. He took a position as an instructor at the Art Students’ League in New York City. He continued to work in a modernist vein, submitting work to the Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters and exhibiting with Charles Daniel’s gallery, an early champion of modernist art. In 1917, Benton became a teacher and gallery director for the Chelsea Neighborhood Association. In addition, he began teaching drawing lessons for adults in the public schools. One of the students, seventeen-year-old Rita Piacenza, would later become his wife.
A brief stint in the United States Navy caused Benton to rethink his largely abstract approach and shift to a more representational style. He served in Norfolk, VA, where he was ordered to create accurate, detailed illustrations of shipyard work and life. He later stated that the work he did in the Navy “was the most important thing, so far, I had ever done for myself as an artist. My interests became, in a flash, of an objective nature…I left for good the art-for-art’s sake world in which I had hitherto lived.”
The 1920s proved to be pivotal in his artistic development. The summer of 1920 was the first of many Benton and Rita spent in the village of Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard. The island provided Benton with an endless stream of colorful subjects. Vivid portraits of cardsharks, blacksmiths, teetotalers and rascals filled Benton’s canvases. The lively portraits were among Benton’s most important from this period.
In 1924, Benton’s father, Colonel M. E. Benton, died of throat cancer. Though the Colonel did not approve of Benton’s vocation as an artist and Benton had had little contact with him since 1912, Benton accompanied his father back to Missouri and was at his bedside during his final months. The experience affected him profoundly. In his book An Artist in America, Benton wrote:
"I cannot honestly say what happened to me while I watched my father die and listened to the voices of his friends, but I know that when, after his death, I went back East, I was moved by a great desire to know more of the America which I had glimpsed in the suggestive words of his old cronies, who seeing him at the end of his tether, had tried to jerk him back with reminiscent talk and suggestive anecdote. I was moved by a desire to pick up again the threads of my childhood. To my itch for going places there was injected a thread of purpose which, however slight as a far-reaching philosophy, was to make the next ten years of my life a rich texture of varied experience."
While in Missouri, Benton produced a series of lively watercolor studies of local characters. The watercolors and the earlier Vineyard captured the raucous, Americana flavor that would continue to mark Benton’s work and would later distinguish him as a leader of the Regionalist movement.
Extensive sketching trips in 1926 and 1928 provided Benton with firsthand images of holy rollers and cotton pickers, boomtowns and cattle ranches, railroads and steamboats. His wandering took him from western Pennsylvania, through Smoky Mountain country, and finally down to the Southern states, exposing the artist to an extensive panorama of American experience.
Images from these trips filled subsequent paintings and murals. His work gained a raw expressionistic and individualistic tone, and he consciously adopted American subjects and themes. His work spoke specifically to the people, traditions and history of the United States.
Five mural cycles from the early 30s effectively changed the face of American Art and led to a Time magazine feature that placed Benton at the forefront of a new movement: Regionalism. The article championed the new style of representational art and lauded painters of the U.S. scene. Benton was the implied leader of the movement. His 1925 self-portrait graced the cover—the first time an artist had been placed on the cover of a national American periodical. Inside the magazine, a discussion of his work dominated the article and two of his paintings were reproduced in color.
Benton embraced his role as a Regionalist. He severed his remaining ties with his old modernist crowd and forged alliances with Kansan John Steuart Curry and Iowan Grant Wood. He also made a move to exchange New York for the Midwest. When the Kansas City Art Institute offered him a position as the painting department chair in 1935, he jumped at the chance to return to his perceived roots.
Benton was at the height of his fame. He boasted, “Like movie stars, baseball players and loquacious senators, I was soon a figure recognizable in Pullman cars, hotel lobbies, and night clubs. I became a regular public figure.”
At the same time, Benton’s work and personality began to stir up controversy. A series of too realistic nudes set off sparks from conservatives, while his portrayal of African-American was met with a mix of enthusiasm and disapproval. His Missouri state capitol murals, conceived as a social history of the state, outraged many. His autobiography, published in 1937, brought favorable reviews by many for Benton’s humorous and casual yet articulate style, while others criticized its supposed vulgarity and profanity.
Turmoil followed Benton into the 1940s. Following months of disagreements with the trustees and board at the Kansas City Art Institute, Benton was dismissed from his position in 1941. World War II shook Benton deeply, and following the tragedy, he completed a series of ten panels entitled The Year of War. Throughout the decade, he continued to document the horrors and heroism he witnessed as a result of the war. As the 40s progressed, the representational style Benton had perfected and advocated fell from critical favor, and Abstract Expressionism replaced Regionalism as the mode.
Even with his work deemed outmoded, Benton continued to paint through 50s, 60s and 70s. Travels to the New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming provided Benton with fresh inspiration and his Midwestern scenes were slowly replaced with Western landscapes. Several mural commissions marked his later years, most notably The Sources of Country Music, created for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Benton’s final work.
Benton died in 1975, leaving behind a body of work that remains one of the most sweeping chronicles of 20th century American culture.