This dissertation, the first on Thomas Hart Benton’s American Historical Epic (1919-1928), seeks to recover and to confront, rather than resolve, the fundamental contradictions of a project that tried to reinvent history painting and mural decoration for modern America. In the Epic panels, Benton employed stylized black, white, and Indian bodies to challenge conventional accounts of American history and expectations for mural painting. With their strangely elongated bodies, exaggerated proportions, distorted physical features, and intensely sculptural presence, Benton’s monumental figures are powerful formal inventions but also startlingly and unmistakably American. Benton sought to interrogate the nation’s art and body politic visually and thematically at a moment when problems of racial and national identity dominated political and cultural discourse. Politically motivated, the Epic is integrally related to the racially charged citizenship debates of the late 1910s and early 1920s. Yet the specific histories, art histories, and cultural references embedded in the iconography of the murals and associated with its figures and forms have never been analyzed in their entirety, until now.
Discovery, Palisades, Aggression, Prayer, Retribution, Clearing the Land, Planting, The Slaves, The Witch, The Pathfinder, Over the Mountain, Jesuits, Struggle for the Wilderness, Lost Hunting Ground: these are the titles of the fourteen publicly exhibited Epic panels. The titles hint at their content, but it is the black, white, and Indian figures that reveal Benton’s re-thinking of American history and the role of race within it. The nation’s most familiar historical themes—discovery, religion, westward expansion—are recast to confront the racial inequities and violence embedded in the popular experience of these histories. This dissertation examines the Epic’s provocative elements, from the unheroic subject matter to Benton’s treatment of form, space, and design, and their influence on the “failure” of the mural series; after almost a decade of work, Benton had not received a public commission and abandoned the project. Consequently, Benton’s artistic methods, idiosyncratic stylistic borrowings, and ambiguous use of racial figures are considered in relation to his own ambitions for these works as well as to the Epic ’s anomalous status within the history of American art.