Thomas Hart Benton Murals
Thomas Hart Benton was born in 1899 in Neosho, Missouri. This long-time Midwesterner never lived in Indiana, but was commissioned by the State Legislature in 1932 to paint the murals to decorate the Indiana Hall at the “Century of Progress” exposition at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Benton signed a contract to paint a continuous mural, 12 feet high and about 250 feet long, depicting the “Social and Industrial History of Indiana.” Benton traveled throughout Indiana for nearly six months to view the society and culture of the state before beginning the project in Indianapolis.
Benton divided the murals into two series, one representing cultural progress and the other industrial progress. Both also depict a history of Indiana that dramatizes the changes in society and the environment. From early Native American inhabitants to modern reform movements and mechanization, Benton captured the aspirations and hard work by which, in the course of a few generations, Indiana was transformed from a wilderness to an agricultural and industrial state.
Benton did all of the actual painting himself using egg tempera paint and went through nearly 10,000 eggs during the project. Benton used several recognizable persons as models for the figures in the painting—Governor Paul McNutt, a New York art critic, several state conservationists, and Indiana artist William Forsythe. He also included images of United States’ Congressmen’s wives in the painting, feeling that the legislators would be more likely to enjoy the painting. Benton was paid $50,000 to create the murals. After supplies, shipping, and other expenses, however, Benton was paid about $8,000 for more than a full year’s work on the project.
Governor Paul McNutt dedicated the mural display in Chicago on July 2, 1933. Critics were sharply divided on the murals. Some believed that the murals made Indiana’s state exhibit the most artistic at the fair. Others disliked Benton’s style and subject matter. Benton himself described the murals as “a dream fulfilled.” Due to the controversy that arose over the murals at the World’s Fair, they were transferred to an old horse barn on the Indiana State Fairgrounds after the fair had concluded. They remained in the warehouse until 1940, when the new Indiana University President, Herman B. Wells, convinced the Indiana State Legislature and Governor Townsend to donate the murals to the University. Benton himself assisted in the installation and retouching, and was present at the Auditorium on “Mural Day,” December 9, 1941
For more information about the Thomas Hart Benton murals, visit the Indiana University Art Museum’s webpage dedicated to The Indiana Murals.
For special interactive tours of the Thomas Hart Benton murals, please contact Patsy Rahn, tour coordinator at the Indiana University Art Museum, at [email protected] (812) 855-7719.