Thomas Hart Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri, and named for a great uncle and early United States Senator. Likely the most important painter of the American Scene Movement, he created a style and addressed subject matter that was uniquely American, as well as specific to his state of Missouri, and which combined elements of modernism and realism. In addition to many murals, Benton also painted landscapes and portraits.
Benton quite often found himself in the center of controversy. As a student, he was unruly and alienated many of his peers and teachers. During the early part of his career, he lived in New York City, where he taught at the Art Students League and became a major influence on the style of the modernist painter, Jackson Pollock.
However, increasingly Benton grew to believe that art should express one’s surroundings rather than abstract ideas, and that the ordinary person most exemplified American life. He became convinced that significant art could only come from the direct experience of life wherever one happened to be living. He said, "It seemed to me that I must make a choice. Either I would paint in the realistic tradition of Western art with some kind of identification with the natural world, and thus risk being ’unprogressive,’ or I would follow the new movements toward an unknown goal, a goal which a number of far-sighted critics were already saying might turn out to be an empty square of paint."
"What I wanted now was to see clearly the nature of American life as it unrolled before me and to paint it without my vision being distorted by any generalities of (Marxist) social theory. The exposition of this change of mind caused my radical friends to see me with a jaundiced eye. I became for most of them a ’reactionary’ and a ’chauvinist,’ in addition to again being an ’opportunist.’"
Alienated from his peers for his opinions regarding the future of art, Benton moved from New York. In 1935, he established a studio in Kansas City from where he painted for the next forty years until his death at age 85. He was both a prolific lithographer, completing 80 lithographs between 1929 and 1945, and writer, including two autobiographies, "An Artist in America," and "An American Art." Fellow Missourian and former United States President Harry Truman said that Benton was "the best damned painter in America."