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Portrait of a Musician

Portrait of a Musician
Thomas Hart Benton
American (1889-1975)
Portrait of a Musician
1949
Casein, egg tempera and oil varnish on canvas
mounted on wood panel
(67.136)
Anonymous gift

Thomas Hart Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri, in 1889. After studying painting briefly in Chicago, he traveled to Paris and enrolled in the Académie Julien (1908-1911). He later claimed that in Paris he “wallowed in every cock-eyed ‘ism’ that came along.” The artist eventually decided that a representational style best expressed his aesthetic and social philosophy.

In the 1920s and 30s Benton became associated with the American Regionalist movement. Like his contemporaries, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood, Benton often represented the everyday life of poor and rural people in the Midwest. While many critics labeled the Regionalists as provincial, the artists themselves often espoused progressive and populist ideals, celebrating the lives of working class people who were often ignored in the cultural centers of urban America.

The model for Portrait of a Musician was a jazz bassist who played in a Kansas City nightclub Benton frequented in the 1940s. The painter was interested on representing African-American culture in Missouri, and he particularly enjoyed drawing and painting jazz players and folk musicians. Sculptural forms, exaggerated gestures and undulating lines characterize Benton’s style, and here he repeats the curved shape of the bass in the rhythmic contours of the musician’s face, hands, and body. This repetition of forms becomes a visual metaphor for the jazz music the bassist plays.

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