Independence and the Opening of the West: Thomas Hart Benton

Lesson Author
Required Time Frame
1 hour
Grade Level(s)
Lesson Abstract
Students will examine "Independence and the Opening of the West" by Thomas Hart Benton. They will analyze its content, use visual thinking strategies and draw conclusions about the art work.


Thomas Hart Benton, an American Regionalist artist, was born in Neosho, Missouri in 1889. At an early age, Benton looked beyond his storied political familial roots to a career as an artist. Benton was treated to an extensive education that involved many travels. He studied at the Chicago Art Institute and the Academie Julien in Paris where he developed his new style. His prominence in the world of art began to take shape in the early 1920's and 30's. Sidney Larson, an artist and friend, recalled, "He took on the high and mighty of politics, art education, criticism, or, simply, privilege."

Evident in his early works was a leftist political philosophy much like his fathers, a member of the House of Representatives from 1894 to 1904. They shared an opposition of eastern bankers, railroad magnates, and industrial capitalists. At one point, Benton was even a card carrying communist, allowing secret meetings to be held in his home. Benton's great love, however, was the common man and his plight. His paintings delight in glorifying this backbone of the American consciousness. Known as a great mural painter, Benton created images for the Missouri Capitol Building, the New School for Social Research in New York City, the Power Authority of the State of New York, and the Indiana Capitol Building.

Independence, Missouri, home of the Truman Library, held a storied past that charmed Benton. Founded in the early nineteenth century, Independence found its way into American folklore by being known as the last city before the frontier. By the 1830's, it was a bustling center of trade for the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. The 1849 Gold Rush in California only confirmed its place in history as an icon of the American West. Independence was no stranger to the blood, sweat, and tears that Benton often painted. When confronted with the idea of painting a mural in the Truman Library, Benton immediately began to conceptualize an idea for "Independence and the Opening of the West" that would focus on the history of Independence. Benton hoped to generalize the history by depicting no particular events or people, excepting Truman. Truman, however, would have nothing to do with a project that would glorify him personally and requested that he not be put in the picture. After some bantering with President Truman over who should be depicted and other ideas, that included Jeffersonian Democracy, Benton's idea was accepted. Depicting three decades, 1817 to 1847, the mural successfully paints a conceptual view of the founding of Independence.

Benton began work on the mural in early 1960, three years after the founding of the Truman Library. Out of the mural, a deep and lasting friendship emerged between two of Missouri's most famous sons. In one account, Benton, high on the scaffolding, was listening to the comments of his chief critic and patron below, President Truman. Finally Benton called down, "If you want to help paint, come up here." "By golly, I will," Truman replied. He climbed up to the platform, seized a brush and began dabbing blue on the sky. Occasions like this, made the President and the artist lifelong friends.

President Truman's love of history only confirmed his affinity for the new mural. He once said, "I picked him because he was the best and this is the finest work by the best."

Lesson Objectives - the student will

Create a list of objects or visual information in the painting

Interpret the meaning of the painting

Discuss student analysis of the painting

Expand the discussion to consider how media representations also shape our ideas about other kinds of people




District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met

Arts and Communications
Standard 2: Knows and applies appropriate criteria to arts and communication products.

Standard 5: Knows a range of arts and communication works from historical and cultural periods

Language Arts
Standard 10: Understands the characteristics and components of the media.

Visual Arts
Standard 3: Knows a range of subject matters, symbols, and potential ideas in the visual arts.

Standard 5: Understands the characteristics and merits of one's own artwork and the artwork of others.

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed
Primary sources needed (document, photograph, artifact, diary or letter, audio or visual recording, etc.) needed
Independence and the Opening of the West by Thomas Hart Benton
Fully describe the activity or assignment in detail. What will both the teacher and the students do?

Source Analysis


  1. What medium was used to complete this mural? What other artists have used this medium?


  2. Artists use colors to influence the viewer's feelings. For example, pale pastels evoke different emotions than strong, bright colors. What color scheme did Benton use to portray the "Opening of the West"? What feelings do the colors evoke?


  3. What feelings does Benton invoke with the frontier family in the center? What is their reaction to the Native Americans approaching them?


  4. What kinds of goods are being bartered in the lower left portion of the canvas?


  5. What are the mounted Indians preparing for in the upper left corner?


  6. What two Nebraska landmarks are identifiable in the upper right corner of the painting? What is their significance to the American West?


  7. What was the role of the African-American in westward expansion? How is Benton's depiction of the African-American in the lower right corner similar? different?


  8. What do the two bottom panels of the painting portray? Why do you think they were painted separately from the rest of the painting?


  9. What Indian tribes are depicted on the mural? Why did Benton chose those tribes? Did he portray them in a historically accurate manner?


  10. What are some of the different jobs being completed in the mural? Which of these jobs (if any) are still performed today?


  11. Identify three different scenes in the mural and give a brief description of the action taking place. How do they contribute to the overall theme of "Independence and the Opening of the West"?


  12. Why was this subject chosen for the mural? Why wasn't an aggrandizement of Truman chosen since the location of the mural is at his Presidential library?

Follow-Up Questions


  1. What art movement did Thomas Hart Benton belong to? What aspects of the movement does "Independence and the Opening of the West" follow? Which aspects of the movement does the mural stray from?


  2. Choose one scene of the mural and tell the story of the people in that scene. Write the dialogue and describe the actions that are taking place.


  3. In what ways does this painting fit your stereotype of the American frontier? How is it different?


  4. How was Independence, Missouri important to the development of the west? What trails originated there? What river does the city lie on? What was the impact of the steamboat on Independence and the west?


  5. Who was Thomas Hart Benton's famous student? What art movement did he belong to?


  6. Examine the works of another American regionalist artist (John Stuart Curry and Grant Wood are the most famous). How is their style similar to Benton? different?


  7. Chose another Thomas Hart Benton painting and compare and contrast it to "Independence and the Opening of the West." How is it stylistically, compositionally, and spatially the same? different?


  8. Read the quote and answer the following questions.


    [I] did assume that some kind of representation of the President [Truman] would have to be put in any mural for his library....A public picture of a living politician is an almost impossible task because you have to face too many people with it. If it isn't flattering you make the man's constituency mad, if it is you make everybody else mad."

    -Thomas Hart Benton 
    The President and Me: The Intimate Story


    • Why would everybody else be mad if the portrait of the President was too flattering?


    • Why was Thomas Hart Benton concerned with painting current political figures? (Examine what happened when he painted Tom Pendergast in the Missouri capital murals.)


  9. Chief Justice Earl Warren said of the mural in a speech at its unveiling, "[It] captures the full drama of the epic western movement of our nation. It cannot fail to reach the hearts of all who see it. It will help to stir the imagination and the vision of our young people with whom the future of our nation rests, and turn their thoughts to our heroic history and to the values which made this country great." Do you agree or disagree? Why?


  10. Why has Benton chosen to not glorify any of the noteworthy men and women of the American West in favor of depicting generalizations of the "common man"?


  11. Tell the story of "America and the Millenium" in pictures. Use whatever medium you desire. What kinds of people are depicted? How does your art work compare to Thomas Hart Benton's?