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View the web module on Benton's mural.

Indiana University Art Museum

Teachers' Resources

Cultural Panel #4

Thomas Hart Benton, Cultural Panel #4 (1933)

Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) wished to create art that would speak to average citizens through clear, easily recognizable gestures, stances, and positions of his figures. He felt these narrative murals were the appropriate conduit for a truly accessible public art, much like fresco cycles of the great Renaissance masters he admired.

Ringing the Indiana Hall at Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition in 1933 was a bold and colorful cycle of mural paintings by Benton. This mural depicted the industrial and cultural histories of the Hoosier state from the age of the Mound Builders to the 1930s, including Indiana basketball and the early days of the Indianapolis 500. In this dramatic 250-foot mural, permanently displayed on the Bloomington campus of Indiana University since 1940, Benton created the first full-scale treatment of the state's history. Painted in egg tempera with extraordinary speed over a period of just three months, this mural was densely packed with identifiable Midwestern and Hoosier iconography.

Benton's mural was intensely controversial, both praised and condemned for its content and style. Liberals were offended by the inclusion of the Ku Klux Klan and conservatives often disapproved of Benton's emphasis on the populist's theme of the common man. Some found his use of color crude, his drawing rough, and his figures distorted and ugly. Others disliked his exaggerated realism or his lack of historical accuracy. Yet in time, his murals have become famous hallmarks of Indiana culture and history, a memorial to the heroism and achievements in everyday society. 

In Cultural Panel #4, Benton addresses the intellectual development and schools of Indiana, grounding the panel in two particular figures: Father George Rapp and Abraham Lincoln. Father Rapp, depicted in the background to the far right, founded the New Harmony community with his German immigrant disciples. When they moved, a Scottish industrialist and intellectual named Robert Owen formed a Utopian community with one of the nation's first free public schools, kindergartens, and trade schools. He is represented in the right foreground, seated at a table. Abraham Lincoln is depicted standing tall to the left of the foreground flanked by a printing press and an old community school. One of Indiana's most famous citizens, Lincoln lived in Spencer County from age seven through twenty-one.

For more information, please see the web module, Thomas Hart Benton and the Indiana Murals, under "Teach and Learn" and "E-Learning," on the Indiana University Art Museum's website.