Thomas Hart Benton Oral History Interview

Thomas Hart Benton  

Oral History Interview with
Thomas Hart Benton

Artist, concerning the mural painting "Independence and the Opening of the West" at the Harry S. Truman Library.

Kansas City, Missouri

April 21, 1964

by Milton F. Perry


[Notices and Restrictions | InterviewTranscript | List of Subjects Discussed]


This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened December 1967
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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Oral History Interview with

Kansas City, Missouri

April 21, 1964

by Milton Perry



PERRY: Tom, could you tell us just why you elected to do this mural--the Truman Library mural?

BENTON: I didn't just elect myself to do it, Milton. I was nominated you might say by David Lloyd and Wayne Grover. Mr. Lloyd was Secretary of the Truman Library, Inc. in Washington, D.C. and Dr. Grover was Archivist of the U.S. but I guess I was elected by President Truman. Anyhow, his was the vote that counted most.

PERRY: Well, how did Mr. Lloyd and Dr. Grover come to nominate you?


BENTON: One day, it was in the late fifties--I've forgotten the exact date--Mr. Lloyd and Dr. Grover came into my Kansas City studio to look at a mural I was completing for the Power Authority of the State of New York. When they saw the painting they said, "We ought to have something like this for the Truman Library." I said, "I think you should, too."

A little later they paid me another visit and Mr. Lloyd asked how much a mural for the Truman Library would cost. I said, "Let's look at the space you want to have painted." After I'd seen the space at the Library I said we ought to talk to the man for whom the Library was built and see if he wants a mural. So we started a series of discussions with President Truman who, it turned out, was interested, He agreed that a mural would be appropriate for the entrance hall of the Library.

PERRY: Did you discuss costs with the President?


BENTON: Eventually, of course, But that aspect of the business was left almost wholly in the hands of Mr. David Lloyd. I talked ideas with the President--what the mural would represent--what historical meanings it should have. It took several months of discussion for us to get into accord on that--on the theme, I mean.

PERRY: Who did finally decide upon the theme for the mural? I mean the subject "Independence and the Opening of the West."

BENTON: I don't think any one of us, the President, Mr. Lloyd or Dr. Grover made that decision, not alone anyhow. The theme just grew up out of our discussions. It was decided quite early that the mural would include Independence because it was the President's home as well as the site of the Library. I thought at first that the President would also want to be included in the mural, but he very emphatically turned that down. He said


he didn't want to be memorialized in the mural--that the Library itself was enough in that line. He said that in effect--I don't remember his exact words.

PERRY: Did President Truman advance many ideas to help decide the theme?

BENTON: He sure did. And they were all good ideas, in terms of history. (You know the President is a first class historian.) The trouble we had in getting together was not his ideas but that they sometimes got too vast for me to be able to paint them.

PERRY: What do you mean, "too vast"?

BENTON: Well, for instance, at one point in our talks the President wanted to include Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase in the mural. There wasn't anything inappropriate in that, only I'd have needed a space ten times as big as the Library


entrance hall to encompass it. The Louisiana Purchase involves a lot of history,

The President, you see, was thinking history but I had to paint it--I had to be concerned about images as well as historical meanings--and every single image would need so much space. They couldn't be multiplied indefinitely.

PERRY: And, I guess, President Truman wasn't used to thinking of history in terms of images?

BENTON: Of course not. Why should he be? But just the same he arrived at accommodating himself to the fact that I had to. After that the working out of the mural theme came along easier.

PERRY: We have in the Library files a letter [copy attached] which you wrote President Truman explaining what you had in mind for the mural. Why did you write it when you could have talked it over with him?


BENTON: Well, we had already done a lot of talking about the theme, but I wanted to clarify, for the President, what it was possible for me to do about it in painting. Clarify it precisely in that direction. That letter solidified and brought to a point all of our previous discussions. It settled the theme not only in terms of history but in terms of paintab1e history. That letter got the President, David Lloyd, Wayne Grover, and myself completely together. When the President accepted its recommendations, the mural was put completely in my hands. And let me say here, he never went back on his acceptance. In all the time I worked on the mural he never kibitzed once. Maybe he wanted to now and then, but he never did. I call that a good patron.

PERRY: So it was you after all, who decided how the theme would be presented--how it was to be interpreted, too?


BENTON: Of course. Who else could do that? I had to do the work, didn't I? You must remember that the theme was worked out verbally, and with large generalities, but I had to translate it into the precise images of the mural and relate those images in the mural space. I had to turn the history of the theme into the form of the mural.

PERRY: It was after the letter then that President Truman signed the contract for the mural?

BENTON: After the letter, after I had decided how much the mural would cost and after we knew we could get the money for it.

PERRY: How did you decide what it would cost?

BENTON: I figured out the size of the painting space, how much subject matter would have to be represented, how complicated, that is, the mural would be, what probable research expenses


I would face and how much time would be expended. Then I set as reasonable a price as I could--I was reasonable because I very much wanted to do the Truman Library mural.

PERRY: And you came to $60,000?

BENTON: That's right.

PERRY: Were you ever previously acquainted with the President or with Mr. Lloyd or Dr. Grover--I mean before you began considering the mural?

BENTON: I had met the President once in Washington, but I had the opportunity for only a few words. It was at the White House when he was actively President and there were a lot of other people there, Lloyd and Grover I had never known before. However, when we started our mural discussions, I soon felt I had known them all for a long time. President Truman has a way, I'm sure you realize, of putting people at ease.


PERRY: It was after you signed your contract with President Truman, I suppose, that you started the planning of the mural?

BENTON: No, I started it, in effect, the moment we began discussing the mural. Even during our first meetings I started reading and making notes. I've read history all my life, especially American history, but details and dates slip easily from memory, you know, and I had to take a refresher run over a lot of facts. I didn't want the President to catch me off base with these facts. Actually, by the time we decided the town of Independence was to enter the mural theme I'd read everything available about its history and knew what was pictorially useful about that history also, I even made a tentative clay model of the mural's general form and showed it to President Truman before the contract was signed. However, you are generally correct--


the kind of planning and research that made the mural what it is was undertaken after our signed agreement.

PERRY: Tom, all in all how long did it take you from your preliminary studies to the completion of the mural?

BENTON: The whole thing took about two years. The research and designing took the most amount of time. For the research I had not only to read, but travel about over the country to find the right kind of Indians, make drawings of them and of the implements, costumes, guns, bows and arrows appropriate for the period--and make studies also of the places where the historic trails shown in the mural were located. I even made drawings of the plant life there. All this took many trips, hundreds of drawings and much time.

PERRY: Did you have any help with all this?

BENTON: Yes. Charles Banks Wilson, the Oklahoma


artist, helped me find my Indians--he and Bruinmett Echohawk, a Pawnee Indian artist, also from Oklahoma. Echohawk knew a lot about old Pawnee customs and was a great help. Wilson not only knew Indians, but he knew where to find what was left of the Sante Fe Trail. He also knew the museums where old costumes and arms were to be found. Then for the Oregon Trail I was driven to Chimney Rock in west Nebraska by Aaron Pyle, the Nebraska artist.

PERRY: From what you have just said the Indians in the mural are real Indians--you drew them from life. Is that true of the rest of the people in the mural?

BENTON: I had living models for all the people in the mural, But I drew them more or less as if they were actors taking a part. On some of them I put whiskers they did not have or lengthened their hair. And I dressed them in costumes they had never even seen. There are no deliberate


portraits in the mural though some of the models are recognizable to their friends.

PERRY: Did you make these researches before you started designing the mural?

BENTON: As I said, I read a great deal, but I never went out "in the research field" until I was sure I was going to use what I found there. But I often had to change my design plans so that they would encompass my findings in the "field". So the designing and the research went on together, at least in the beginning--afterwards, when I had all my facts, the organization of these facts into the final design occupied me completely.

PERRY: I remember that you were actually painting at the Library only about five months, so most of the two years you spent on the mural were devoted to planning it. [The mural was completed in March, 1961 and dedicated April 15, 1961.]

BENTON: Yes. It's determining what you are going to


do that takes the time for the kind of murals I paint. It took a lot of work merely to set up the perspectives of the Truman mural--to get all the objects in one perspective scheme, I mean. For an illusionary space such as I created in the mural to look like a real space, the painted images have to be arranged in very special ways-- so that one appears to be behind another or in front of another. The Truman mural is constructed on a series of planes which go, not only from side to side or up and down, but backwards and forwards as well. The organization of these planes and the objects upon them are crucial factors in a "realistic" representation like the Truman mural. And it takes a lot of "trial and error" before you can arrive at a unified or, let us say, cohesive organization.

PERRY: Why did you elect to make the mural "realistic"? I'm sure it was you who decided that.

BENTON: Yes, that was wholly my decision. I could


have handled the mural's subject matter and told its history story without breaking the plane of the wall--painted it flat, that is, and in a more purely decorative manner. And I could have done it a lot easier and earned my money in much less time if I had elected to paint it that way. But the problems which are faced in constructing an illusionary three dimensional space are fascinating to me. I like to try to solve them. Besides I'm a fairly realistic fellow and like realistic representations.

PERRY: Well, I'll say this, your "realistic" solutions in this mural certainly fascinate the people who come to look at it.

BENTON: I know that and I'm glad of it because the mural was painted for such people--it was painted to engage their attention to its meanings. After all, a mural in a public building like the Truman Library should generate public interest. As I see it, that's its purpose.


PERRY: Let me get back to your planning of the mural. We all saw the elaborate sculptured model of it which you made with plastilene and which you brought to the Library when you started painting. Can you explain why you made that model?

BENTON: I'll try. First let me say I make such dioramic sculptures for all my complicated pictures--pictures where I have to imagine most of the subjects--imagine their very appearance--and where I have to imaginatively set up the relations between these subjects. Where, to put it simply, I must make a scene I have merely imagined appear like a real scene.

The Truman mural is obviously an imaginary scene. I was not even born when its historical story ended. Neither was President Truman. In the mural you see the old town of Independence, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, Chimney Rock of western Nebraska all in one scene. That's


impossible except in your imagination.

Now, the model I constructed helped to turn what I imagined, in this case, into a tangible reality. Into something I could refer to when I painted. In the model I also tested the placement and relations of the figures and other objects. Out of an imagined three dimensional scheme I was able to make a real scheme--in miniature--but real just the same. The different planes of the mural scene, though geometric abstractions in their conception, are revealed in the model, much as the light would fall upon them in a real scene. Thus the model solved one of the chief problems of realism--the logic of light and shade in reference to the forms of objects.

PERRY: But with all your experience you must know beforehand where light would logically fall on a form.

BENTON: Of course I do. But the model turns what is


merely logical into a substantiated fact that I can look at. And to get a realistic representation you do have to have real facts to refer to. The sculptured models supply these facts, facts of vision, I mean, which approximate the appearance of such facts in the real world. And there is more--the model also gives the logic of the design a sort of real existence.

PERRY: What do you mean by the logic of the design? Can you explain that?

BENTON: This is a very technical matter which I could only explain fully with diagrams. But it's something like this--the logic of a design lies in the way its different parts are related to one another. In painting, lines and shapes are set up which lead the eye from one part to another part. These are what we call logical relations. They don't generally exist in the facts of nature but only in the way we interpret


these facts, Logic is an artifice of the human mind by which we organize our experiences and hold them together. The logic of a painting is the organization of its forms and colors--so that it holds together.

Is that an answer?

PERRY: Yes, I think it's pretty clear. But let me ask you--are the perspectives of the Truman mural part of the logic of its design?

BENTON: Yes, in the sense that they reinforce the relations of the figures in the illusionary mural space. But the basic logic, the pictorial logic, lies in the flow of lines and shapes from one area to another. I could have done the mural with a different perspective scheme and still kept that flow of lines and shapes--with modifications, of course.

PERRY: Why did you choose the perspective scheme


you have in the mural?

BENTON: I chose it so as to make sure that the perspective lines in the mural would not at any place coincide with the perspective lines of the actual architecture in the room. If I had allowed that to happen, we would have had bad distortions in the mural when people changed their positions while looking at it. But, Milton, we're getting to a place where I can't answer your questions with words. Technical questions like you are asking can only be answered by technical demonstrations.

PERRY: Well, let's try another angle. You said before that you only made models for imaginary subjects.

BENTON: Let me explain that a little more. If I'm painting a portrait or a still life, I don't need a sculptured model to stimulate reality


because the reality is right before me, But even there I sometimes do construct a model to simplify what I see and help me design logically. I see the world a lot like sculptors see it and I tend to design sculpturally even with the point of a pencil, but I design more easily with sculpture itself.

PERRY: Another question--the sculpture model you brought out here was painted. Did you work out your color for the mural on it?

BENTON: I worked it out approximately--roughly, blue here, green there, and other colors likewise. But when I made the color sketch, from which I worked on the scaffold, I was continually repainting the model to fit the colors that developed in the sketch. In the end the colors put on the model were simply efforts to imitate the colors in the sketch. The models are made chiefly to set up a formal logic. I adapt the


colors to that in various ways. But here again we are getting too technical for words.

PERRY: O.K. Do you try to save your sculptures--the ones you make for paintings?

BENTON: I don't generally do so, but so many people were interested in the one I made for the Library mural that I did try to have it cast in bronze. But it was a tough technical job for casting and the model was destroyed in the process.

PERRY: Beyond repair?

BENTON: Utterly. And the plaster cast made from it was no good either.

PERRY: There was a lot of interest in that model. It's too bad you lost it,

BENTON: I think so too. But you do have photographs of it. So it's on "record" anyhow.

PERRY: What are your future plans for all the mass


of drawings and sketches you made while preparing the Truman mural? They certainly are of artistic interest and a lot of them are of historic interest.

BENTON: I am going to keep them together, If the Truman Library wants them, it's likely to get them, eventually.

PERRY: I think I can go on record by saying the Truman Library will certainly accept them. But let's get back to another question about the mural itself. I want to ask you about the predelle. There is a difference in the color schemes of the predelle and that of the mural. Why is this so?

BENTON: Originally I intended to paint the predelle in the same color scheme as the main part of the mural but as the mural began to reach completion, I thought it better to reduce their color. The predelle are entirely different in scale from the rest of the mural, are not in the


same perspective scheme, and were conceived more in the order of a bas-relief; so I decided to separate them from the upper mural by painting them in the colors of the marble which surrounds the mural. This tied the predelle to the architecture more than to the main mural--at least as to color.

PERRY: Is the idea of having predelle an old one? Have they been much used by artists?

BENTON: Yes, very few of my ideas are original. Predelle were frequently used in religious paintings where related subjects were painted to accompany the main one, and like mine, they were often executed with a coloration different from that of the main subject. Often in monochrome.

PERRY: Tom, you are generally known as a mural painter, but you also make other paintings---what we call easel paintings. What is the


difference between a mural and an easel painting?

BENTON: This is not easy to answer without getting technical again. But I'll try. There is a difference between murals and other paintings. Generally a mural is much larger and its theme likely to be more complicated as to subject matter. This causes equally complicated designing problems--getting the subject matter to-gether, I mean.

You can't generally grasp a mural all at once. You may be able to see it at once but you are likely to explore it by walking about before it. A mural must be designed therefore so that the eye of the spectator can follow its lines and forms from part to part. As I said before, it must have a logical design which the moving eye of the spectator is constrained to follow. A small painting can be grasped at once--at one shot of the eye, as we say--so a different


kind of designing is used for it. The small painting is generally limited also to one vista and one subject and the best are kept fairly simple.

Let's notice the sketch I made for the Truman mural. Its design is much too complicated for an easel picture. The eye gets no rest in it. But when you raise its scale to the size of the mural the design in the sketch changes its character. The big, the enlarged, spaces reduce its agitation. Your eye rests between the big forms of the mural in a way it cannot with the same forms in the small sketch. This is about the best non-technical difference between easel paintings and murals that I can think of at present.

PERRY: Which is the oldest--mural painting or easel painting?

BENTON: I would say that mural painting is the


oldest. Certainly it is the oldest on record. In France and Spain you find paintings on the walls of caves which are at least 20,000 years old and probably older.

PERRY: Do you think we have improved on these ancient murals?

BENTON: Oh, in some respects, of course, we have. We certainly organize ours better. But no one has ever captured the feel of wild animals any better than the old cave painters.

You know, Milton, while we are on this subject, you just can't think of art in terms of progress. It is not progressive. It is just different from age to age, One age gets used to a certain kind of art form and thinks that is better, but the next age will deny that thought and go back to some older form. So I wouldn't compare the animal paintings of the cave men with those of our times or any other times. The older


ones have their own superior qualities and you just have to realize that these peculiar qualities can never be refound again. You must accept them. You can't get anything better in the world of art than a fully realized form and such forms have been made by artists since the dawn of history. We were as good, as artists, when we began our history as we are now--sometimes better.

PERRY: Why did you, yourself, go into mural painting?

BENTON: When I came out of the Navy after the First World War, I made up my mind that I wasn't going to be just a studio painter, a pattern maker in the fashion then dominating the art world--as it still does. I began to think of returning to the painting of subjects, subjects with meanings, which people in general might be interested in. This led to an idea of painting a history of the United States on mural size canvasses. I started this project in 1919 and exhibited the


results, year by year, at the Architectural League in New York, I became known as the mural painter without walls because I couldn't get any commissions from the architects. However in 1930 I did get a wall at the New School for Social Research in New York. I was commissioned to paint a mural there on "Contemporary America". After the one mural commission followed another. In the end I began to think more as a muralist than an easel painter.

PERRY: You have just said that you looked for subjects which might have a meaning for people in general. Does that indicate that you used your art to express other than artistic meanings--to illustrate ideas, for instance, for people other than yourself? How do you feel about artists who use their art to express themselves? That is what artists are supposed to be most concerned with isn't it?


BENTON: Milton, I don't think an artist can help but express himself. Anything he does automatically expresses his inner character and his mind. For that reason the less conscious attention he gives to his feelings--to his inner self--the better off he is. Of course, the modern artist has been thrown back on himself for well over a hundred years because there has been so little public usage of art. Art was separated from what I call public or socially sharable meanings when society quit using the artist to express them. The Church and the State ceased to be patrons of art. The wealth of the old aristocracies was dissipated and that patronage was lost. So the artist came to live and carry on his activities apart from society in general. It is natural that he would tend to turn inwards, to his own private feelings, for inspiration. But I am sure that is not quite healthy, People who spend a lot of time looking


into themselves are not psychologically healthy--especially if they keep it up for a long time. The artist is surely no different in this respect.

It appears today, with the new interest in art which seems to be growing in society, that the position of the artist may change. I think he should quit looking into himself and turn outwards and see how he can take advantage of that change--if it is really occurring.

One of the ways he could do that is pay more attention to public meanings--meanings that people in general can share and less attention to his private aesthetic meanings which they cannot wholly share without special training.

PERRY: Well, Tom, you have certainly done that with the Truman mural. People in general are interested. They have been coming in here by the thousands ever since you finished it. But another question. In your opinion how does the Truman mural compare with the other murals you have done--say like the


one in our State Capital, Jefferson City?

BENTON: That question has been asked me many times. But I can't answer it. I can't judge my own work. Another question people ask is, "Among all the paintings you have made which is your favorite?"---I always say it's the one I am working on. And that's the truth. I really don't know which of my works is the better. And I don't care. Anyhow--and in the end, decisions about that will be made by the people who look at these works. Following up what I said a little before, it is not the artist, but the interested spectators who finally determine the values of works of art. I'll let my case rest with them. As a matter of fact, I have no other choice.

PERRY: But you did have a sort of message to the viewers of the mural, didn't you? Didn't you want the mural to say to them something you had in mind?


BENTON: Yes. I did want them to get the sense that America was made, built up into the powerful country it has become, very largely by the actions of the common people spreading out over the frontiers--on their own and without any kind of official prompting. The mural was conceived as a folk story and, if it has a deliverable message, that would be about the pre-eminence of the folk in the development of our country. But as I said just now about the values of a work of art being finally determined by its spectators so also will its meanings be finally determined. And that is all right. It's not what's in the artist's mind that is important, but what his art raises in the spectator's mind--that's what counts in the long run.

PERRY: Now one last question. Why did you choose to paint the Truman mural with acrylic polymer emulsion paint?


BENTON: First because its colors do not change but chiefly because this paint has a very tough film when it dries. I have painted most of my murals with egg-tempera, which also does not change color, but the film of which is delicate and easily damaged. Some of my mural work has been vandalized, some of it accidentally scratched and I wanted to minimize the chances of that happening to the Truman mural. If anybody wants to scratch their initials on it they'll have to work harder than with other paints.

PERRY: Thank you, Tom, for this interview. We know a lot more about you because of it.

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List of Subjects Discussed

Benton, Thomas Hart:

Echohawk, Bruimmett, 11

Grover, Wayne C., 1-2, 3, 6, 8

Harry S. Truman Library mural:

“Independence and the Opening of the West”, 3

Lloyd, David D., 1-2, 3, 8

Mural painting, 24-28, 31-32

New York Power Authority, 2

Pyle, Aaron, 11

Truman, Harry S.:

Truman Library, Inc., 1


Wilson, Charles Banks, 10-11

  • acrylic polymer emulsion, reason for use of, Truman Library mural, 32-33
    art, philosophy of, 27-33
    art, realism discussed by, 13-14
    art, self expression in discussed by, 28-30, 32
    Harry S. Truman Library mural:
    • conception as a folk story of American history, 32
      conferences with H. S. Truman concerning theme of, 2-5
      decision as to cost, 7-8
      designing of, 12-20
      dioramic sculpture model, reasons for making, 15-17, 20-21
      interpretation of theme, 6-7, 32
      research for, 9-12
    history, expressed by mural art, discussion of, 4-6, 10-12, 15, 27-28, 32
    mural painter, career as, 27-28
    mural painting, art form described by, 24-28, 32
    painting, discusses different forms of, 23-27
    Truman, Harry S., discussions with concerning painting of mural for Truman Library, 2-6
    • first meeting with, 8
    acrylic polymer emulsion, medium used in painting, 32-33
    Benton, T. H., employed to paint, 1-7
    cost of, 7-8
    design, technical aspects of, 17-21
    designing of, 12-20
    dioramic sculpture model of, 15-17, 20-21
    as a folk story of American history, 32
    interpretation of theme, 6-7, 32
    decision to have mural painted in, 2
    predella, 22-23
    as a realistic representation, 13-14
    research for, 9-12
    theme of, 3-7, 32
    Benton, T. H., conferences with regarding theme for Truman Library mural, 2-5
    Benton, T. H., first meeting with, 8
    Harry S. Truman Library mural, choice of T. H. Benton as painter of, 1-7
    as a historian, 4

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