Thomas Hart Benton’s Shocking Wartime Paintings

Benton’s Year of Peril will be presented by the director of the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio Historic Site.

By Paul Edelman

A series of shocking paintings once deemed too brutal and horrifying to display before American citizens will be the subject of a talk on the 76th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. On Dec. 7 Mid-Continent Public Library’s Raytown branch at 6131 Raytown Rd. will focus on a lesser-known side of painter Thomas Hart Benton, one of Missouri’s favorite native sons, and the macabre images he created immediately following the bombing.

The presentation begins at 7 p.m. and will be led by Steve Sitton, director of the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio Historic Site. Titled “Benton’s Year of Peril,” the talk explores a unique period in the artist’s life between December 1941 and April 1942.

Benton’s eight paintings during this period viscerally illustrate the fear and panic that engulfed the United States. “They were intended to wake middle America up,” Sitton says.  The dire and brutal subject matter forecast the possibility of an America under siege by foreign invaders, he explains.  For Benton to best alert America, especially his insular Midwest home, he concentrated on the gritty realism of war and the threat of invasion that could be coming to America’s shores.

Although these large-scale propaganda panels were widely distributed, federal officials became worried that they were too ghastly to display. In one image, for example,  a giant Japanese soldier with an ogre-like expression tosses human skulls onto a barren landscape while a fiery cloud of smoke billows behind him.

Benton is perhaps best known to Missourians for his boldly colored, curvilinear scenes of agrarian life in the nation’s heartland. Born in Neosho, Missouri, his folksy paintings and murals are displayed in many public buildings, including the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.

But his wartime paintings show he had another side. At the library talk, Sitton will present images of the eight panel paintings (the originals are at the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia) that Benton completed as the country plunged into World War II and discuss the message the artist intended to convey about the nature of war and the necessity of U.S. retaliation.

“It’s easy to look at Benton as a one-trick pony, but there’s more to him,” Sitton says.

Please register for the talk at 816-353-2052.

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