Old Photos: Thomas Hart Benton’s History of Missouri

Previously: Thomas Hart Benton Paints the Persephone.

In 1935 the Missouri legislature commissioned Thomas Hart Benton to paint a mural history of the State on the walls of the lounge in the State House in Jefferson City. It chose Tom Benton because he is Missouri’s ablest painter and comes from one of Missouri’s most distinguished families. The legislature, however, never expected to get anything like the Benton History of Missouri which was completed just before this year’s session began in January. No pretty glorification, the murals turned out to be a raw and animated review of Missouri’s past and present. They gave full space to Missouri’s first settlers, its first railroad, its agriculture and industry, its great Champ Clark. But they also gave space to a slave auction, a lynching, Jesse James of Clay County, Frankie and Johnny of St.Louis. Loud were complaints that Benton was vulgar, that he had distorted Missouri into a “houn’ dog State”. But Benton Supporters pointed out that Missouri was, after all , a “houn’ dog State” whose natives did call each other “pukes.” As the fuss subsided, Missourians began to look at the murals more calmly. Though they admitted that the pictures were interesting, they still felt that it wasn’t a fitting way for a son of Missouri to tell the story of his native State.

Artist Thomas Hart Benton presents former Gov. Guy B. Park w original pencil sketch from which the governor's portrait in the History of Missouri mural was painted.© Time Inc.Alfred Eisenstaedt

Detail of painter Thomas Hart Benton's History of Missouri mural. © Time Inc.Alfred Eisenstaedt

Detail from Thomas Hart Benton's History of Missouri mural.© Time Inc.Alfred Eisenstaedt

Detail from Thomas Hart Benton's History of Missouri mural.© Time Inc.Alfred Eisenstaedt

Portrait of State House porter, known as Popeye, who served as a model for painter Thomas Hart Benton's History of Missouri mural.© Time Inc.Alfred Eisenstaedt

Visitors to State House contemplating painter Thomas Hart Benton's History of Missouri mural. Missourians feel the murals need explaining.© Time Inc.Alfred Eisenstaedt

Detail of painter Thomas Hart Benton's History of Missouri mural.© Time Inc.Alfred Eisenstaedt

Portrait of Mrs. Pickens, a WPA typist, who served as a model for painter Thomas Hart Benton's History of Missouri mural.© Time Inc.Alfred Eisenstaedt

Missouri House of Representatives discuss Thomas Hart Benton's mural of the history of the state that some found too raw and not glorified enough.© Time Inc.Alfred Eisenstaedt

© Time Inc.Alfred Eisenstaedt

© Time Inc.Alfred Eisenstaedt

© Time Inc.Alfred Eisenstaedt

Portrait of artist Thomas Hart Benton.© Time Inc.Alfred Eisenstaedt

© Time Inc.

About the murals.

  • Nice post. Very classy. You know this means you should go on a 9 month hiatus with respect to complaining about Missouri. 🙂 

    • when did I ever complain 🙂

  • Bob

    I remember when there was an exhibit of a number of Benton’s works…maybe at the Nelson?  I can appreciate one of his paintings, but only one at a time.  He’s like donuts.  One can be heavenly, but two dozen make you sick.