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The Cover
March 23/30, 2005

The Lord Is My Shepherd

JAMA. 2005;293(12):1424. doi:10.1001/jama.293.12.1424

He was born in Missouri, grew up in the Nation’s capital, studied art in Chicago and Paris, lived for 20 years in New York City, and summered for half a century on Martha’s Vineyard. When he reached his midforties, he returned to Missouri. At 77 he had a stroke but continued to work for nearly a decade more, accepting and completing two major mural commissions. He died in Kansas City at the age of 85 and his ashes rest, with those of his wife Rita, beneath a tree on the southern tip of Martha’s Vineyard. During his career he flirted with Impressionism and with Pointillism, had a serious affair with European Modernism, but eventually forsook all to create what he termed a truly American art, an art that would be based on American subjects and American values, an art that would be understood by “the people.” In his person, he was as colorful and homespun as his paintings. Diminutive in stature (like his father, he was never more than five feet, three inches tall), he is remembered variously as feisty and showy, a “bantam rooster,” gruff, curmudgeonly, kind, and, again like his politician father, a Populist. He chewed tobacco, swam without a bathing suit, and was never shy about extolling the virtues of his own work. He was, with Grant Wood in Iowa and John Steuart Curry in Kansas, one of the triumvirate of Midwest Regionalist painters, Thomas Hart (or, as he called himself, Tom) Benton (1889-1975). Shunned for many years by the eastern art establishment (who preferred, apparently, the Abstract Expressionist style of Benton’s pupil Jackson Pollock), Benton has recently, thanks to a traveling exhibit organized by Henry Adams, curator of American art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, extended his reputation beyond the heartland to places as far west as Los Angeles and as far east as New York City.

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