Segments in this Video

Thomas Hart Benton: Introduction (02:04)


Thomas Hart Benton painted America's cities, landscapes, and people for over 70 years. The artist embroiled himself in controversy because he wanted to make art accessible to the common man. (Credits)

Benton's Nature (03:47)

Dan James describes Benton's stature and pugnacious nature. Earl Bennett, a former student, explains why he wanted to study with the artist. Born into a political family, Benton fled the Midwest only to return and celebrate it in his artwork.

Neosho (03:10)

His Parents named Benton after his uncle, a senator who wounded Andrew Jackson. Missouri elected Maecenas Benton to congress four times. Elizabeth Benton encouraged her son's painting career, but Maecenas did not.

Cartoonist For Joplin American (03:23)

Listen to him reminisce about getting a job as a cartoonist after the publisher caught him staring at a painting of a naked woman. Maecenas sent him to a military academy to drive his passion for art away, but relented and enrolled him in The School of The Art Institute of Chicago. In Paris, Benton rented a studio, grew a mustache, and spent his free time at the Louvre; Parisians called him "Le Petit Balzac."

New York (02:03)

Benton stole paints, worked on movie sets, and served time in the Navy, and got stabbed by and angry girlfriend. He constantly painted trying different movements including Impressionism, Pointillism, Constructivism, Symbolism, Synchronism, and Cubism.

Breaking Onto the Art Scene (03:22)

Roger Medearis, a former student, describes how Tintoretto influenced Benton by creating three dimensional clay models. The artist decided to paint "The American Historical Epic." Experts and friends discuss what Benton was trying to achieve through his paintings.

Changing Family Dynamics (03:52)

Benton and his father reconciled after Maecenas was diagnosed with cancer. After his death, Benton wanted to paint his childhood. Benton married Rita Piacenza, an Italian immigrant, who supported him financially.

Often Away (04:04)

Rita once described Benton as "the worst husband who ever lived," but encouraged the painter and convinced the New School for Social Research to allow Benton to "America Today." Experts discuss the mural's impact.

Celebrated Artist or Hack? (04:11)

Experts debate Benton's work from 1928-1938. The artist painted "The Indiana Murals" in less than a year; it contained hundreds of figures in action. The piece created controversy because Benton included a portrayal of a coal miner's strike and Klu Klux Klan members in full regalia.

Creating American Art (03:24)

Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry, and Benton grew proud of the being called "Regionalists." In 1935, Benton condemned the New York Art Scene and wrote how he would travel west to find American Art.

Traveling Back to the Midwest (01:47)

Benton accepted a job as head of the painting department for the Kansas City Art Institute. Edward R. Murrow interviews the artist about his decision to return to Missouri.

Kansas City (05:16)

Missouri commissioned Benton to paint a mural on the social history of the state. The artist describes the technical challenges to painting "A History of Missouri." Art experts and family members discuss the impact of the piece because he incorporated both positive and negative moments of time.

Art Instructor (04:38)

Benton emphasized how his student's needed a "grand design" before painting. Protégés of Benton included Jackson Pollack. Friends and critics describe how the artist wanted to be a regular man, but was really an aristocrat.

An Artist Who Can Write (05:01)

Benton published his autobiography "An Artist in America;" critics discuss its impact. Community leaders demanded his termination at the Art Institute of Kansas City. Benton painted "Persephone" and "Susannah and the Elders."

Years of Peril (04:48)

During World War II, Benton created "The Year of Peril"- ten prints that portrayed how Nazism threatened American ideals. The New York school of Abstract Expressionism emerged as the new dominant movement in the United States. The artist felt modern art was for the east coast elite.

End of the War (03:16)

Wood and Curry died in the early 1940s and Benton began to feel isolated from the art world; minimalism emerged as the new dominant movement internationally. The Whitney Museum asked Benton to find a new home for his murals. Pollack declared that he learned nothing from his former teacher.

Later Years (03:21)

Benton illustrated books, painted murals for stores, and created art for Walt Disney. Friends discuss how the artist fought against conservative and liberal forces.

Outliving Your Enemies (02:16)

Benton and his family spent every summer in Martha's Vineyard. Jessie Benton describes how the family kept quiet so the artist could concentrate. In free time, Benton played musical instruments.

Traveling Again (03:05)

Nature provided Benton with new challenges; Jessie describes how difficult the artist found painting mountains. Friends discuss how dedicated Benton was to his craft.

A True Partner (04:14)

Rita encouraged the artist to continue painting and handled all the business transactions. Jessie describes how her mother would steal paintings that Benton did not like so she could sell it later. Watch Edward R. Murrow interview him.

Harry S. Truman (03:00)

President Harry S. Truman asked Benton to paint a mural for his presidential library in Independence. The artist won election for The American Academy of Arts and Letters, but left when its president made a speech Benton disliked. George O'Maley describes how the artist and The Kansas City Art Institute reconciled.

Last Works (04:09)

Benton painted "Joplin at the Turn of the Century" after he turned 82. The Artist died in his studio after completing "The Sources of Country Music" for the Country Music Hall of Fame. Family and friends describe their reactions; Rita died three months later.

The Benton Bash (02:30)

Friends gather at his favorite saloon to celebrate his birthday surrounded by his paintings. Jessie recalls that Benton hated bars.

Conclusion: Ken Burns: Thomas Hart Benton (03:27)

Critics discuss the impact of Benton's career and paintings.

Credits: Ken Burns: Thomas Hart Benton (02:26)

Credits: Ken Burns: Thomas Hart Benton

For additional digital leasing and purchase options contact a media consultant at 800-257-5126
(press option 3) or

Ken Burns: Thomas Hart Benton

3-Year Streaming Price: $169.95



One of America's best-known, least-understood painters was Thomas Hart Benton. Ken Burns traces the pioneering artist's turbulent career in this bittersweet portrait, highlighting the fierce controversy over his work. The film combines rare archival material, commentary by those close to the artist, and a stunning selection of Benton's superb paintings and murals to create a moving profile of the 20th-century genius.

Length: 87 minutes

Item#: BVL131292

Copyright date: ©1989

Closed Captioned

Performance Rights

Prices include public performance rights.

Not available to Home Video, Dealer and Publisher customers.

Only available in USA and Canada.