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Indiana University Art Museum
 

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Industrial Panel #9

Thomas Hart Benton, Industrial Panel #9 (1933)

Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) was a bold and influential American painter and a major figure of the Regionalist movement that focused on images of the rural American heartland in the 1930s. Born in Neosho, Missouri, Benton began his artistic career working as a cartoonist. In 1907, he moved to Chicago to enroll at the Art Institute, and later he moved to Paris. Returning to the United States and settling in New York, Benton became concerned with expressing meaning and values in art through color and form. He wished to create an art that could speak directly to average people and not just cosmopolitan elites. His art was realistic in style, easily readable, and filled with storytelling and social commentary. He was particularly interested in mural painting because of its accessible, public format.

Ringing the Indiana Hall at Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition in 1933 was a bold and colorful cycle of paintings by Benton depicting 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 with extraordinary speed over a period of just three months and boldly modeled in egg tempera, 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 common man as a populist's theme. 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, a courageous and exuberant memorial to the heroism and contradictions in everyday society. 

In Industrial Panel #9, Benton presents the heavy industrialization of Indiana, particularly the coal-producing area around Terre Haute. Here, Benton depicts a muscular man with a bright carbide head lamp. He hints at the labor disputes that plagued the Indiana coal industry: union leaders and activists rallied the workers to fight for better wages and safer working conditions. Occasionally, physical violence broke out; one of the more controversial elements of the mural is the crouched figure in the midground to the right, poised to throw a rock at a hired guard. Benton also references the brick, coal, and natural gas industries of Indiana by including appropriate and identifiable structures in the midground of the painting.

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.