Living in Missouri for a couple of years after his father lost his seat in Congress, made Benton realize he was not a homebody. He took off at age 17 and started his career as a cartoonist in Joplin, Missouri. Benton’s academic education began with a year at the Art Institute in Chicago studying with Frederic Oswald. Then he went on to Paris for three years and studied at the Academie Julian. His father finally cut off his funds, causing Benton to return home.
Once in New York City, he supported himself by doing portraits and teaching art classes He married one of his students, Rita Piacenza. During WWI he became a draftsman and served in the Navy. He was required to make drawings and illustrations of shipyard work and life and then went on to draw camouflaged ships as a record for the Navy to help identify ships should they be lost. This work led to Benton doing a mural The American Historical Epic for the New School of Social Research in 1930 – 1931. This mural done entirely in egg tempera pushed him to the forefront of mural painters whose style acquired the new title – Regionalism.
Regionalism could be described as an anti modernist style that focused on rural life. Benton’s paintings showed working people with big muscular bodies that worked the earth. He was political and portrayed powerful people as villains that took advantage of the common man. The Whitney Museum, the Chicago World’s Fair (1933), and the Missouri State Capital commissioned his murals.
There were two definite schools of opinion on his work. Harry Truman said “he was the best dammed painter in America.” Art critics from the east coast looked at him as a failed artist whose only claim to fame was being Jackson Pollock’s teacher. But on the whole, his works were well loved by the American audience.
Benton was prolific. He authored books and articles on art and current events. He did a series of lithographs on the American Art Scene. He produced over 4,000 works. Kansas City was his home for the last 40 years of his life.
Benton never stopped painting. Benton’s works are in major museums though out the country.