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Monday, January 16, 2017

Thomas Hart Benton's Home

Just the way he left it when he died in 1975
(except for the sign in the front yard).
The street address, 3616 Belleview Avenue, in Kansas City, Missouri, might easily be mistaken for any upper-middle-class home in the city. The house is approximately 7800 square feet on three floors, containing 24 rooms, four fireplaces and a fully finished basement. The Benton family purchased the one-third acre property in 1939 for six-thousand dollars. Today the historic site is owned and managed by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Tours are provided that show the furnished house and studio as Benton left it when he died on January 19, 1975. (His wife, Rita, died eleven weeks later.)

Though slightly dated after some forty years, the Benton house kitchen
still appears modern and quite functional. (The photographic distortion is due to my having stitched together two somewhat incompatible images.)
As with Georgia O'Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, and several other 20th-century artists, we tend to think of them in terms of the distant past, born in the 19th-century and therefore living in a manner quite antique by today's standards. True, there's no fifty-inch TV hanging on their wall in their living room, and no attached garage with an electric door opener, no Jacuzzi in the master bath, nor an iphone next to the easel. But neither do we find an icebox in the kitchen, a coal stove in the living room, or a dozen candles burning in the dining room chandelier. Let's face it, any famous artist from the recent past, living and working in America during the 20th century, even by today's standards, would likely be considered wealthy, living a comfortable, if not lavish, lifestyle in accordance with the so-called "American dream." That would pretty accurately describe the American painting icon Thomas Hart Benton and his Kansas City home of forty years.

Self-portraits, 1970 and with his wife, 1922.
Finding the home of Thomas Hart Benton in Kansas City (Missouri, not Kansas) is far from easy. There are no billboards and the house is located in a residential area so restrictive zoning applies. Similarly, there are few maps featuring the historic site. Some city promotional materials don't even take note of its presence or location. I had to make up my own map (below).

The location indicated is, at best, approximate.
Finding the place is made all the more difficult in that, architecturally, the house is in no way exceptional. And, while not unattractive, with its stone and frame exterior, neither would it elicit even a passing glance as one drives by along Belleview Avenue. Built in 1903 for an electric utility executive, and sitting atop a small hill, the house has a somewhat fortress-like ambience little changed by the Benton family during their time in residence. Given the fact that the artist and his family first moved there during the war years of the 1940s, even today, in it's 1970s incarnation, there is still a restrained, conservative element in the décor. Although Benton, his wife, and children (a son and a daughter) endured difficult times during the depression when the American Regionalist painter was still struggling to make a name for himself, by the time they moved to Kansas City they could be said to have been reasonably well-off. Their home reflects this.
Inside, the word "comfortable" comes to mind.
(Ignore the tourist-gray floor protectors.)
As usual, when one sees an artists' abode, it's only when upon entering that artist's custom crafted, personal workspace that the ordinary becomes extraordinary. The studio of Thomas Hart Benton is no exception. First of all it's large. Benton worked large, his mural-like canvases often measuring in feet rather than inches. Add to that his penchant for history painting and live models, the result is barnlike, light and airy, but not inviting. Here we do find an antique coal stove. With their often high ceilings and huge, north-facing windows, artists' studios are notoriously hard to heat. And as unpleasant as such a drafty environment may have been for the artist, consider the plight of Benton's often nude models. Benton is said to have commented: "Development of my art skills stopped in the second grade when a teacher couldn’t recognize a watermelon in my drawing. However, I would have definitely applied more effort if I knew that a career in art allows for unlimited hours alone with nude women, who will not complain if their features will not look so flattering on the painting. It’s art, you know."

A reflection of the man and the artist, probably in a
much neater, more organized state than when he was alive.

Thomas Hart Benton in his studio, painting one of his most famous works, The Rape of Persephone, done about the time he moved into his new home. Dating from the late 1930s, Benton's allegorical nude was considered scandalous by the Kansas City Art Institute. However, it was borrowed by the showman, Billy Rose, who hung it in his New York City nightclub, the Diamond Horseshoe. It is now owned by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Karal Ann Marling, the museum's art historian, calls it, " of the great works of American pornography."


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