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Thomas Hart Benton War Paintings and Sketches

Indifference , Year of Peril, 1944-0007
Thomas Hart Benton
State Historical Society of Missouri-Columbia
Indifference , Year of Peril, 1944-0007

Thomas Hart Benton is a Missouri artist known for his depictions of American life and the working man. He was not afraid to include political topics like prohibition and slavery in his paintings. Benton usually did large scale paintings, including the murals in the Missouri state capitol building. A less widely known exhibit by Benton is on display in Fulton at the National Churchill Museum.

By Emily Kaiser.

At the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, visitors have the chance to see World War II through the eyes of historic Missouri artist, Thomas Hart Benton.

Most of the prints are pen and ink on paper, but there’s several water colors and also oil paintings. ”

Mandy Plybon describes a series of naval drawings and paintings by Thomas Hart Benton. Plybon is the Education and Public Programs Coordinator for the National Churchill Museum and says the exhibit was brought to Fulton to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

The images are less bold in color compared to Benton’s murals and are more documentary. Many show crewmen working next to a landing ship tank, and others show men laboring inside a submarine.

“These paintings are not widely circulated and are not widely known. They do make exhibits with these paintings from time to time in various places. But this is the first time I can recall them ever being in Missouri.”

Bob Priddy is the news director for Missouri Net. He has written a book on Benton’s capitol paintings and knows a lot about Benton’s career. Benton’s war paintings actually started with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Benton called these the “Year of Peril” paintings. Priddy explains.

“He was out on a lecture tour and was in Cincinnati when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He immediately canceled the rest of his tour and went home. And for the next 6 weeks, he worked in his studio on a series of very large paintings that are known as the Year of Peril paintings, which are in the State Historical Society in Columbia. ”

I wanted to learn more about the Year of Peril paintings, so I went to the Historical Society and was surprised at what I saw. Smoke, fire, blood, and skulls are some of the violent themes in this series and imagery I have not seen before in Benton’s work.

The Society’s Curator of Art collections, Joan Stack, met with me and told me more about the artist’s beliefs about war and how they shaped the style of these paintings.

“I think he felt painting pictures that might move others was his way to contribute to the war effort. And he actually spoke about trying to wake up the people of the Middle West to the gravity of the situation. So he began producing these horrific images representing the horror of the things that were happening during the war.”

The Year of Peril paintings were financed by Abbott Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company. In 1943, the company hired Benton to document US navy submarines and landing ships. Benton had served in the navy during World War I, and Priddy says these paintings humanize the war effort of the second world war.

“This series gets to the real nitty gritty of the war, the human side of the war, so it’s interesting to see how these things were built and how they were first broken in. Benton shows us that in his paintings. ”

Back at the Churchill Museum, I noticed one painting that wasn’t part of the naval series. The reason? Winston Churchill. Priddy says when Churchill came to Westminster College in 1946 to give his famous Iron Curtain Speech, he didn’t want a cash payment.

“Churchill was an artist himself. So, he was a painter and he knew about Benton and American Art. And so, he asked for a painting by Thomas Hart Benton.”

Churchill wasn’t the only one who appreciated Benton’s work. Priddy says the naval exhibit gives viewers a glimpse of life during the 1940’s and the effort it took to succeed in World War II.

The naval exhibit is on display until November 2nd. Click here to see images from Thomas Hart Benton’s Naval Exhibit.


Joan Stack is the State Historical Society’s Curator of Art Collections. Click below for Stack’s description of Thomas Hart Benton’s series of paintings, Year of Peril.

1.  Indifference , Year of Peril, 1944-0007 State Historical Society of Missouri-Columbia

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3.  Again, Year of Peril, 1944-0002 State Historical Society of Missouri-Columbia

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5.  Casualty, Year of Peril, 1944-0006 State Historical Society of Missouri-Columbia