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Article originally appeared at EBSQ

Thomas Hart Benton’s connection to the Modern Art Synchromists Movement

In the world of Art History, the name ‘Thomas Hart Benton’ is synonymous with Regionalist art. But those same roots that are bound to images of the Regionalists are intertwined to Synchromism, are often overlooked. When one examines the work closely the clues are found within Benton’s choice of color, composition and form.

Fig 1. Stanton MacDonald-Wright, Casis France, photograph, Reprinted from American Art Review, Jan-Feb 1974.

Synchromism was founded by Stanton MacDonald Wright (Fig. 1) and Morgan Russell, while they were in Paris during 1912. Together they created the first official works, produced anywhere, which were considered “nonrepresentational’. Simply put, Synchromism was a method of painting that set itself apart by using fractured forms and rich colors ; based on using the color theories of Tudor Hart along with the sculptural qualities of Michelangelo.

Fig 2. Thomas Hart Benton, Self Portrait. c. 1912. Oil and tempera on canvas, 31 ½ X 22 ¾” Lyman Field and United Missouri Bank of Kansas City, NA, Trustee of Thomas Hart and Rita P. Benton. Testamentary Trusts.

Benton initially met Wright in the winter of 1909, and immersed himself in the Synchromistic methods. Unfortunately, the only way we can now examine the influence of this time period had on his work is by drawing conclusions from his later work, as much of the work created from 1914-1917 was destroyed in a fire at his home in Neosho Missouri in 1917. (Fig. 2, 3)

Fig 3. Oak Hill on fire, c. 1917, photograph, Collection of Mildred Benton Small.

Eventually Benton’s work with the Synchromists was shown in the highly selective New York, “Forum Exhibit” of 1916. His works, in his own words were...“created using the Tudor Hart’s color system…Following the Synchromist practice at the time. I based the composition of these pictures on Michelangelo sculpture. However, as the multiple-figure composition was again occupying my thoughts. I selected Michelangelo’s early relief the “Battle of the Centaurs,” rather than a single figure to serve as a model for my creations.” (Fig 4)

Fig 4. Thomas Hart Benton, Three Figures. C. 1916, oil on canvas, 25 X 24 1/8”, from the private collection of Mrs. Deen Day Smith.

Throughout Benton’s career Michelangelo’s work continued to be a major influence. Intrigued with the three dimensional form, Benton began creating sculptures and began to make dioramas (or miniature scene) of intended two dimensional works. He would begin by forming clay models, which were somewhat like a relief sculpture (projecting slightly from the surface). He would then create numerous drawings from the models, if the idea presented did not translate well to two dimensions, he would rework it until it did.

Benton’s work expresses the influence of the Synchromists in his choice of color palette and composition, particularly in his early work titled “Bubbles’. (Fig. 5) “Bubbles” was created by Benton during 1916, during his direct involvement with the Synchromists, and is visually similar to the work of Stanton MacDonald Wright (fig. 6) This similarly can be seen by the use of the composition , and the circular shapes used to contrast the angular ones, along with the hues used throughout. The similarities can be seen in the upper and lower left corner, where the space is broken up in a similar fashion with curvilinear lines created with circular shapes that help to draw your eye throughout the composition. In many of Benton’s work there is a triad color scheme, again the physical rhythm of the human form that ties his work to Michelangelo, and the familiar color theme of red, yellow, blue. (figs. 7, 8, 9)

Fig 5. Thomas Hart Benton , Bubbles, oil on canvas, c. 1916, 21 ¾ X 16 ½”, the Baltimore Museum of Art. Gift of H. L Mencken.

Fig 6. Stanton MacDonald-Wright, Abstraction on Spectrum, c. 1914, oil on canvas, 301/8 X 24 3/6”. Des Moines Art Center, Coffin Fine Arts Trust Fund, 1962.

Fig 7. Michelangelo, The Holy Family, c. 1503, 47”, Uffizi/Scala.

Fig 8. Michelangelo, The Erythracean Sibyl from the Sistene Chapel Ceiling.

Fig 9. Thomas Hart Benton , The Bather, c. 1917, Oil on canvas, 29 ½ X 28”. Private Collection

Finally lets reexamine a few of his abstract work to help us see the correlation between then and his later work. In “Constructionist Still Life”, created in 1917-1918 (fig 10) there again is a triad color scheme, geometric shapes which later would be replaced by the human form. For instance in his work “Rita and T.P.” (fig 11), although the colors differ, due to the central vortex, each composition is very similar and are easily interchangeable.

Fig. 10. Thomas Hart Benton, Constructivist Still Life, oil on cardboard, c. 1917-1918, Lyman Field and United Missouri Bank of Kansas City, NA Trustees of Thomas Hart and Rita P. Benton Testamentary Trust.

Fig. 11, Thomas Hart Benton, Rita and T.P., egg tempera and oil on canvas, 27 X 39 ¼”, c. 1928, from the collection of Nanette and Stephan Sloan.

Later, Benton was to claim he dropped the Synchromistic palette and focused his work on single figures and groups. Eventually the abstracted qualities become secondary and Benton would try and eliminate many of the abstract devices. In “Self portrait with Rita” created in 1922, (fig 12) one can once again see the use of a triadic color scheme based on red, yellow, blue.

Fig. 12. Thomas Hart Benton , Self Portrait, South Beach, oil on canvas, 49 1/2X 40”, c.1922, National Portrait gallery, Smithsonian Institute, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack H Mooney.

If one compares the work to ”Bubbles” created in 1916 the eye is following the same path throughout the image (fig 13), with the eye again following the curve of the letter ‘J’ up through the upper right of the image.

Fig. 13. Comparison Created by Author c. 1997 from Bubbles, and Portrait, South Beach, Thomas Hart Benton.

In 1948 two of the works created by Benton continued to carry on these same two characteristics previously shown in his work. In both “The Apple of Discord” (Fig. 14) and “Poker Night” (Fig. 15) the female is presented in a traditional Renaissance Michelangelo style. Once again the viewer is observing a red, yellow, blue color theme, as seen in his work while with the Sychromist. (Fig. 16 and 17)

Fig 14. Thomas Hart Benton , The Apple of Discord, c. 1948, oil on tempera on canvas mounted on panel, 37 X 48”, collection of Rita Benton, Kansas City.

Fig 15. Thomas Hart Benton , Poker Night, c. 1948, oil and tempera on canvas mounted on panel, 35 ½ X 47 ¼”, collection Mr. and Mrs. Sheldon Shapiro, St. Louis Missouri.

Fig. 16. Thomas Hart Benton, Upper Manhattan, c. 1917, oil on canvas. 28¼ X 28¼”, the Cleveland Museum of Art, anonymous gift.

Fig.17. Thomas Hart Benton , Constructivist Still Life, c. 1918. egg tempera on panel, 14 X 8 ½”, Graham Gallery, New York.

In conclusion, the link between Thomas Hart Benton and the Synchromist movement, Is one that stands not to be forgotten. For no person lives in a vacuum, but are influenced of by their surroundings. Even a “good ol’ boy’ from Missouri who dared to break away from his traditional art training, and jump from the safe edge into the unknown. Yet after we look at the examples above, the influence of Synchromism can not be denied. One can not see it them merely as coincidence, but rather something much more that should be examined and acknowledged.

1. Gail Levin, “Thomas Hart Benton, Synchromism and Abstract Art,” Arts, 56 (Dec 1981):144.
2. David Scott, The Art of Stanton MacDonald-Wright; Washington: published for the National Collection of Fine Arts by the Smithsonian Press: 83.
3. Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1989: 61.
4. Henry Adams 73.
5. Gail Levin 48.
6. Henry Adams 90.
7. Gail Levin 131.
8. Matthew Baigell, An Artist in America, 4th edition, University of Missouri Press, 1983:76.