Missouri's ills and glories on Capitol's wall

Saturday, June 12, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- When Thomas Hart Benton's mural in the Missouri Capitol depicting a social history of the state was publicly unveiled in 1937, the reaction wasn't universally positive.

Many critics felt Benton, who hailed from an old Missouri political family, should have focused on noble scenes of the state instead of emphasizing less pleasant aspects such as slavery and the violence of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.

Some lawmakers were disturbed by the vibrant colors and larger-than-life figures on the four walls of the House Lounge, which at the time was where they relaxed, drank and played cards. Finding the images disconcerting, lawmakers soon moved their card games to the House floor. For decades after the paintings were completed, some legislative curmudgeons still called them "manurials."

Benton, a man of strong will who had an open disdain for uninformed detractors, relished the controversy.

"I paint sometimes to get people to criticize my work," Benton once said. "I'm the kind of artist who likes to eat when I'm living instead of waiting until I've passed away and then your work sells for a high price."

Sixty-seven years after its completion, the Capitol mural is seen as the masterpiece of Missouri's greatest artist.

Bob Priddy, author of the 1989 book "Only the Rivers are Peaceful: Thomas Hart Benton's Missouri Mural," said the worst thing that can be said about the work today is that it is too good.

Although the Capitol is filled with magnificent pieces by the most significant artists and craftsmen of the early 20th century, the Benton mural overshadows them all.

"It is such a dominant presence, it is the one that sticks in people's minds," Priddy said.

Born at Neosho in 1889, Benton died at Kansas City in 1975. His great-uncle and namesake was a U.S. senator from Missouri and one of the most powerful figures in antebellum American politics. Today, Sen. Benton is most remembered for putting a bullet in future President Andrew Jackson during a duel.

Although schooled in the various abstract movements of his day from years spent in Paris and New York, Benton the painter opted for a more realistic style, which earned him numerous detractors among the art world elite. Priddy said Benton loved sparring with critics.

"He did not suffer fools gladly, and he thought people who tried to tell him what to do were fools," Priddy said. "Benton was very much his own man."

When commissioned to paint the House Lounge, Benton quickly established his independence by refusing to submit to the oversight of a supervising commission that wanted a say on content. He was paid $16,000 for the job -- more than the salary of Missouri Gov. Guy Park. After expenses, however, Benton only cleared about one third of that amount.

He spent 18 months researching the project and traveled Missouri to make sketches of people and structures for potential inclusion in the mural. The First Baptist Church at Cape Girardeau was among the buildings he considered using.

The actual painting on sections of canvas mounted on plywood panels affixed to the walls of the House Lounge began in the summer of 1936 and took him six months to finish.

The mural consists of a variety of separate yet interrelated scenes from Missouri history, beginning with the arrival of the earliest European settlers and continuing through the 1930s.

Priddy, the news director for the Missourinet radio service, has reported on Missouri government for more than 30 years. During the days when the House Lounge was still used for committee hearings, he spent countless hours studying the mural when legislative proceedings grew dull.

"It was then that I discovered you can't look at one part of this mural," Priddy said. "You start looking at one part and Benton forces you to look at the rest of it."

By Priddy's count, the mural depicts 235 people and 46 animals.

Painted with honesty

Rather than glorifying Missouri, Benton pursued honesty in his creation.

Slavery is portrayed in all its brutality and degradation. A lynching is shown amid a scene of the barbarism that was the Civil War in Missouri.

Since violence played a prominent role in state history, the mural reflects that with scenes of the James Gang simultaneously robbing a bank and a train and of the legend of Frankie and Johnny, in which a woman murders her unfaithful lover. The tale, made famous by a popular song of the period, was based on an actual 1899 incident in St. Louis.

Benton used real Missourians as the models for his figures, including the Capitol janitor Benton immortalized as the runaway slave Jim in the segment paying homage to Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

One of the most controversial models Benton included was infamous Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast, who a few years after the mural was completed lost his stranglehold on state government and went to prison. Pendergast is shown puffing on a cigarette at a meeting of Kansas City leaders.

Sidney Larson, a Columbia artist and curator for the State Historical Society of Missouri, cited the Pendergast portrait as an example of Benton's penchant for telling it like it was.

"He didn't make him pretty," Larson said. "He made him look like he was --a sharp political boss."

As an art student in the 1950s, Larson met Benton through a professor who was a friend of the painter. Benton later selected Larson to oversee the first restoration of the mural in 1960, though Benton had a hand in the project.

"There were decisions I would not make without his collaboration," Larson said.

Larson was also involved with later restoration and preservation work on the mural.

Former state Sen. Al Spradling Jr. of Cape Girardeau, met Benton around the time the legislature appropriated funds for the restoration. He said the artist regaled him with colorful stories of Missouri history.

By that time the controversy over the mural had subsided, and it was almost universally accepted as something special.

"Most people who came to the Capitol building, the first thing they wanted to see was the Benton mural," Spradling recalled.

Gail Oehrke, a Capitol tour guide, said the mural remains the building's top attraction. Visitors are awestruck by the three-point perspective that makes it appear as if the images are following you no matter where you stand, he said.

Benton's masterful technique and firm grasp of his subject make the piece stand out, Larson said.

"It is a monument to American art," Larson said. "What he did was so honest and direct and so filled with true history. It is a remarkable thing. He was a man short in stature but long in courage."

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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