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Thomas Hart Benton Oral History Interview

   

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]

 


NOTICE
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

RESTRICTIONS
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
THOMAS HART BENTON

Kansas City, Missouri

April 21, 1964

by Milton Perry

 

[1]

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?

[2]

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?

[3]

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

[4]

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

[5]

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?

[6]

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?

[7]

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

[8]

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.

[9]

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--

[10]

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

[11]

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

[12]

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

[13]

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

[14]

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 c