This story originally appeared in our March/April 1973 issue. Photography by Karl Lee. 

In 1935 Thomas Hart Benton returned to his native Missouri, to Kansas City, where he has become a landmark.

He and his wife, Rita, live in a warmly welcome, rambling old house. In the carriage house, at the reat, Benton works daily at his painting which has made him one of the world’s most talked-about artists.

Best known for his murals, Benton has painted six of them about Missouri, for Missouri institutions. Here, in his carriage house studio, he talks about them and about what he has tried in them to say about Missouri.

The Capitol, Jefferson City

I believed the Capitol mural turned out to be the most controversial one I’d done, not so much during the process of painting it as afterwards. And it’s awful hard to understand quite why.

The controversy lasted about six or eight months. If you remember at the time, some of the representatives took advantage of the opportunity to get a little advertising for themselves and wanted to whitewash the whole mural. But the state of Missouri spent sixteen thousand dollars on it, a pretty good sum. I knew quite well that they weren’t going to destroy anything that cost that much money.

You’re always in the middle of controversy, if you’re in the public eye at all. But I don’t think any controversy over any of my work interested the public at large as much as the fuss over the Capitol mural.

It was simply because I included the mythology Missouri, its most popular mythology, along with the rest of Missouri life. I thought that was part of the state.

Now, curiously enough, that was considered a rather odd thing to put on the wall of the state capitol. For instance, the story of Frankie and Johnny, which was so much a part of our Missouri background, mythological background, that I thought it had to go in, just like Huckleberry Finn would have to go in.

They physical side of the job was no great problem. You can calculate those things. You work around ’em. There are technical ways of handling turns in the wall, certain rules you go by that are as old as time. It simply means that you can’t use a single perspective in a mural. You know, you have the change the perspective because the spectator has to change his point of view all the time.

Lincoln University, Jefferson City

I did the mural at Lincoln University at the request of the authorities there. Dr. Sherman Scruggs was then the president and a fellow named Parks was in the art department. They were going to raise money to pay me by subscription. They never made it, so I gave them the mural.

The original price was $15,000, but they never could come near it. They raised some money but it wasn’t enough for me to dare take because it was less than I got for ordinary small paintings. And I didn’t want to publicly reduce the market value of my paintings. So I thought it was better to give it to them.

I don’t know what it would be worth. It’s awfully hard to figure a mural. The larger size is a little harder to dispose of.

All of the murals are theoretically transportable except the Truman mural. That’s the only one attached to the actual wall. All are on panels, which can be removed.

The Lincoln  mural posed a special problem for me. I don’t generally use photographs for anything, but in this case it was the only thing I could refer to, so I got all the photographs possible. And I made a little model in clay of the face, making it up from all the photographs I could until I got that one.

Now, any Lincoln you make up is probably not Lincoln. It’s a resemblance of him, because even the photographs are all utterly different, depending on the light and shade you get the face in. If the Lincoln in the mural is anyone’s idea of what Lincoln really ought to be, I hit it by pure accident.

I did another Lincoln; I did one in the Indiana mural, Lincoln as a young man. That was very well liked, and I did it the same way.

The River Club, Kansas City

I did this for the River Club, a private club in Kansas City. And there’s never been any public controversy over that, probably because the mural has never been publicly displayed. Only members of the club go there and a few other people who get permits to look at it.

The mural looks east. I did it looking from just where the River Club is, looking east, or northwest, up the Missouri River. The wagon trains are going southwest in the mural. They didn’t turn west until they got way down to Council Bluffs. Southwest, they would move out of Kansas City, in order to get to the easiest trails.

I forget just what the white man is holding up. Something for bartering. Someone asked if he was trading it for a beautiful young squaw—that’s a possibility.

The whole theme is simply old Kansas City, and it’s reconstruction based on what research we could do on it.

Harzfeld’s, Kansas City

The next mural I did was Harzfeld’s store in Kanas City. Now, the distinguishing feature that I remember about that was that, after he’d given me the commission (and that was as much as the Missouri mural, although it was about one-tenth of the size) he got a little worried about the Capitol mural controversy and asked him to at least let him stay in business. I thought it was pretty cute!

Didn’t hurt him. It didn’t hurt the state Capitol either.

The story that I used in the Harzfeld’s mural is about Achelous and Hercules, a Greek myth about a river god. It had certain connections with our experiences with the Missouri River, so I just took that as a theme. I’ve always had a hankering for these mythological paintings and this gave a cahce to do one.

It’s pronounced Atch-lous. That’s a soft C. Now, you go to some other country and they pronounce Greek and Latin differently, but that’s what we call it.

This mural, like most of mine was in egg tempera; that is, the color is ground in the yolk of an egg and applied with water. I did use polymer tempera for my murals in the Truman Library and at Joplin.

The Truman Library, Independence

When I did the Truman mural, I had a bit of difficult with Truman about what should be in the mural. He was a very good historian, but his ideas would be all verbal, not pictorial. Most of them, you couldn’t paint. You can’t paint anything as evanescent as an idea. You have to have something in front of you.

One thing that brought my murals into attention is that they are full of movement. And that’s just a technical thing. It’s lines played against one another so they create movement and make you shift your vision all the time.

Shading is part of the whole business, the way these forms are related to one another, one agains the other so you’re shifting your eyes all the time. That gives you a sense of movement.

A Missouri type? The question has been asked me many times. That’s hard to say. There’re quite many of them, you know. You’ve got the north Missourians, the farm types there. You’ve go the hillbillies. You’ve got the Bootheel types.

I developed a bursitis problem when I did the Truman mural, with all the climbing up and down. I had to finish the job under cortisone. So I decided I wouldn’t do any more murals. Then this Joplin thing came along.

And, actually, it being only five and a half feet high, I could handle it without any climbing. So I finally did it.

The City Hall, Joplin

A small section of the mural in Joplin.

Some people say the mural “made” the Joplin centennial. They made it themselves. Those people had to raise the money. I’m absolutely astonished at what they were able to do. And they’re putting out a catalogue on the exhibition of my paintings.

They’re putting in color reproductions—it’s a very expensive affair. So it’s astonishing that a town that size can do that. That town is half the size it was in 1906 when I worked on the newspaper there.

The model of the Joplin mural is the only one I’ve ever kept. I put wax underneath it, made the basic structure out of wax, which remains very solid. The others are all destroyed. Everything that is useful about them is in the murals. Now, in the late years I hav been casting sculpture instead of throwing it away so I have some bronze sculptures.

I don’t know of anyone today that uses that sculpture approach. Not today. Of course, it was quite common in the past.

People ask me if there are any mural painters today of any stature. I don’t know. There are mural painters. Murals are being painted all the time. During the WPA there must’ve been thirty or forty of them done, but none of them have stood up.

One of the reasons why murals take so long, incidentally, is that it takes longer to plan them than it does to paint them, because you not only have to look up this stuff but you’ve got to organize it pictorially.

I’ve never used a research assistant. I’ve had fellows help me, such as museum experts. I’d go to them, hunting for certain costumes or information, but I always knew what I was looking for before I’d go to them.

I’ve always used live models. One of the great problems sometimes is getting the costumes away from the museums to put on a model. I’ve had trouble with that, yes, indeed.

The Capitol murals took the longest of all my murals—two years. Eighteen months to plan it and six months to pain them.

We’ve had some problems with the mural since. They put that air conditioning down there and drew all the moisture out of the air, and that set up movements in those panels. They got to moving so strong it pulled the expansion bolts right out of the wall and pulled the heads off. And that caused some cracking, not in any bad places. But we had to make those reparations.

I understand now they’ve got a humidifying machine in there, trying to get it back to normal temperature. But in any bureaucracy, as you find in the capital, in any capital, there’s a kind of passing-the-buck attitude. Unless somebody attends to that, nothing will be done.

No mural painter has made a reputation like mine. Not in our time. I don’t know the reason. The subject matter had something to do with it, I think, the return to realism after the abstract movements were going very strongly, and brought my work to people’s attention.

It’s hard as the dickens to say why a painter makes a reputation. I really don’t think anybody knows why.

Thomas Hart Benton