In May 1935, the Missouri State Legislature approved a bill commissioning Neosho-born artist and nationally acclaimed artist of the ‘American Scene’ Thomas Hart Benton to paint a mural on the walls of the Capitol Building’s House Lounge. Its passage authorized the appropriation of $16,000 to pay Benton. This was a serious commitment of resources, exceeding even the governor’s annual salary, although Benton acknowledged his project expenses totaled around two-thirds of the sum.
Entitled A Social History of Missouri, the mural focused heavily on the experiences of the working classes and yeoman farmers from the early settlement era to the contemporary dispossession engendered by the Great Depression. The artist was forthright about his intention to ‘paint what he saw’; most of the mural’s contents originated from sketching trips around Missouri, and many of the individuals and scenes portrayed within were derived from his life experience.
The mural crosses three walls of the large rectangular room. The north wall depicts Pioneer Days and Early Settlers, the east wall displays Politics, Farming and Law in Missouri, and the south wall exhibits scenes from St. Louis and Kansas City. Each wall is bisected by a marble-framed doorway, an architectural framework that Benton extends throughout the mural panels by segmenting off vignettes of Missouri life with frame-like divisions. Atop each door, the mural features associated mythologies, namely Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Jesse James’ railroad stickups, and the tragic story of Frankie and Johnny.
Benton’s densely populated walls, organized thematically and chronologically, communicate the artist’s interpretations of Missouri history. Benton memorialized the working man as societies’ driving force while highlighting inequities associated with the proliferation of industrial technologies and city living. He depicted African Americans and Indigenous Americans through the lens of exploitation by slave traders and settlers. He also included Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast; this subject, and the inclusion of a woman changing her infant’s diaper, was controversial and elicited calls for the mural’s destruction. Thomas Hart Benton committed much of the next decade to mounting a defense of the mural, which he considered his definitive magnum opus.
Creator: Thomas Hart Benton
Subject: Benton, Thomas Hart; Missouri mural
Contributing Institution: Missouri State Museum
Rights: © 2021 T.H. and R.P. Benton Trusts / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York