The president & the painter: The Truman-Benton friendship

03/10/2013 5:31 PM

05/16/2014 9:23 PM

One day in the late 1950s, Harry Truman pulled open a desk drawer.

“I hear you like this,” he told Thomas Hart Benton, holding up a bottle of bourbon.

From small things, big things one day come.

More than once the former president and the celebrated American artist toasted their late-life partnership, which resulted in a mural covering 495 square feet of a wall in the Truman Library entrance in Independence.

A new exhibit, which opened Friday at the library, details the mistrust and misunderstanding both men overcame to agree on the mural and the story it would tell.

It wasn’t easy getting to that point.

They had plenty in common. Both had been born in southwest Missouri. Both knew politics — Benton’s great uncle had been an early Missouri senator. Both drank bourbon.

But there were issues.

Truman once called a painting rendered by Benton a “monstrosity.” Truman also once referred to the Benton mural in the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City as a “horror” that defiled the statehouse.

Benton, for his part, once wrote that he was “appalled” by Truman’s ideas of art.

But none of this stopped Truman one day in 1959 — he was 75 years old — from climbing up a wooden scaffolding and, standing with Benton, applying his own brush strokes to the mural. Upon the mural’s dedication in 1961, Truman declared Benton “the best muralist in the country,” and Benton came to consider Truman a model patron.

The story begins in the early 1950s. Truman had just recently returned to Independence from the White House.

Benton was enduring thin times.

“The 1950s had been a bad time for my art,” Benton wrote in a memoir of his time with Truman. “Although I still had a good deal of journalistic support, the art galleries and museums had little interest in my paintings.”

Fortunately, he added, “my reputation as a muralist had survived.”

So he saw as fortuitous the visit to his Belleview Avenue home and studio by Wayne Grover, archivist of the United States, and David Lloyd, executive director of the corporation that built the Truman Library. Both were considering a mural as a finishing touch to the building that had been dedicated in 1957.

A wild card figured to be Truman, who wasn’t reluctant to share his opinions of the art world.

“I know nothing about Art with a capital A, particularly the frustrated brand known as modern,” Truman had written to a film company publicity agent in a 1955 letter.

What was the problem?

Randall Jessee, Kansas City broadcast television news pioneer, was among the first to figure out Truman’s apparent resentment of Benton.

In the early 1950s, Jessee had invited Harry and Bess Truman to dinner at his home. Jessee mentioned that he would be inviting his neighbors Thomas Hart Benton and his wife, Rita.

Bad idea.

“Well, he’s the fellow who made a mistake in painting those murals about Mr. Pendergast down at Jefferson City,” Truman told Jessee. “I’ve got a long memory, you know, and I don’t know whether we’ll get along or not.”

A film studio publicity agent had prompted a similar reaction from Truman, only in more vivid terms. In late 1954, the agent, writing from United Artists’ Kansas City office, had invited Truman to visit Benton’s home studio to be photographed standing before a painting that Benton recently had completed for “The Kentuckian,” a film starring Burt Lancaster.

The agent had sent along a reproduction of the painting.

“Both of my grandfathers were from Kentucky as were both of my grandmothers,” Truman wrote in response. “All of the four had brothers and sisters most of whom I saw when I was a child. They did not look like that long-necked monstrosity of Mr. Thomas Hart Benton’s.”

Truman closed by adding that he wouldn’t encourage Benton to commit any more “horrors like those in Missouri’s beautiful capitol.”

Truman never sent the letter, which remains in the Truman Library collection.

It’s unclear what Truman meant by referring to Benton’s works as “modern.” Benton had studied at the Chicago Art Institute and the Academie Julian in Paris. By the 1930s, Benton had established his familiar style, which many described as American regionalist, grouping Benton with peers such as Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry.

Although Truman considered “modern” art remains elusive, it probably included more abstract art, said Ray Geselbracht, special assistant to the Truman Library director.

“He referred to modern art as ‘ham and eggs’ art, which meant when you throw an egg at the wall and smear it around with a piece of ham.”

Still, Truman could speak with experience regarding public art.

While serving as Jackson County presiding judge (the equivalent of today’s county executive), Truman had traveled the country to find just the right architect to design the $4 million Jackson County courthouse, completed in downtown Kansas City in 1934. In a memo written years later, Truman, describing his search for handsome county courthouses, wrote that he took “my private car — not a county one — and drove to Shreveport, Denver, Houston, Racine, Milwaukee, Buffalo, Brooklyn, Lincoln, Baton Rouge and several other places.”

In Shreveport Truman saw and admired the Caddo Parish Courthouse, designed by architect Edward Neild. Truman ultimately selected three Kansas City architecture firms for the Kansas City courthouse assignment but retained Neild and his partner Dewey Somdal as design and plan consultants.

Earlier in 1934, Truman had traveled to the New York studio of sculptor Charles Keck to finalize plans for a statue of Andrew Jackson astride a horse to be installed outside the courthouse. Keck allowed Truman to manipulate several small models of Jackson and horse to consider different options.

“Then I caught a taxi and my train and here I am back in politics,” he wrote to Bess and their daughter, Margaret, from Washington.

“From the height of the esthetic to the basement of the practical, and I confess I like them both.”

Truman’s gripe with Benton began with the Jefferson City statehouse murals. The paintings depict Missouri’s social history and include several recognizable Kansas City figures, among them machine boss Tom Pendergast, Truman’s political sponsor.

Truman always had made clear his support of Pendergast, even after the machine boss had pleaded guilty in 1939 to income tax evasion and served time in the Leavenworth federal penitentiary.

Benton, Truman apparently thought, had included Pendergast in the statehouse mural without the boss’s knowledge or permission.

In fact, according to Benton, Pendergast had posed for the artist, Geselbracht said.

Benton bridged this misunderstanding through diplomacy. While Truman was leaving one of the dinner parties, Benton slipped Truman an original sketch of Pendergast. “By the way he accepted it, with a good hearty grip of the hand, I knew that at least one difference between us had been done away with for good,” Benton later wrote in his memoir.

Bourbon also played a role in the protocols. The bottle that Truman had pulled out apparently had struck Benton as a calculated provocation by which to take his measure. When Benton asked for water and ice, Truman responded with an apparent eye-roll.

“Well, you don’t drown it,” he told Benton.

“This performance on the part of a president of the United States embarrassed me,” Benton wrote.

“There is no good reason why it should have, because it was a common act of human hospitality, but there was still about Harry Truman an aura of power.”

When the bourbon ritual was repeated later, Benton perceived Truman’s reaction in another way. Benton sometimes asked for a second glass. On one of these occasions Truman said, ‘Tom, you’re driving a car. You can’t have another because you’ve got some work to do around here, and I’m not going to take risks with you.”

Benton wrote, “I was now, in effect, his man, and he was going to protect me. And he did.”

By 1957, Truman had accepted the idea of a mural and the idea of Benton painting it. But just what Benton would paint had to be discussed before a contract would be signed.

In early talks, Truman kept telling Benton of his admiration for Thomas Jefferson and his foresight in the negotiations that led to the Louisiana Purchase. The mural, Truman thought, should incorporate that.

Benton, he wrote, “was appalled.”

He kept trying to rein in Truman’s ambitions for the mural. He wrote that the president’s thinking was verbal, not visual. Finally Benton said, “Mr. President, there’s no way I can paint President Jefferson’s foresight and I can’t paint negotiations either.

Truman, Benton wrote, then said. “Well, what the is it you can paint?”

Seeing the opening, Benton presented an outline of a mural that would emphasize Independence and its role in the opening of the American West.

“I said I would get it up with enough historic detail for him to understand what I was trying to put over and finally I said, ‘And it’ll be something I can paint.’”

Truman told him to go ahead. Benton later said that Truman never second-guessed his decisions.

Other details, such as Benton’s price for the mural — $60,000 — sparked little debate. The principals signed the contract in June 1958, but Benton didn’t begin painting until December 1959. Before then, Benton took several trips to Oklahoma, Colorado and Nebraska to find human models for the mural. For a member of the Pawnee tribe, Benton traveled to Pawnee, Okla., and scanned the faces of worshippers leaving a church service. He settled on the preacher, a Pawnee, who agreed to be sketched.

Back home, Benton made sketches of Jessee and his wife, Fern, who became a pioneer leading a team of oxen and a pioneer woman.

Benton also traveled to museums to complete sketches of period tools or weapons.

“Benton said that he had learned long before that, when he was creating a very democratic art on the country’s history, that everybody might not have very sophisticated ideas about art theory or composition, but they had very firm ideas if anything was wrong,” Geselbracht said. “That included a weapon or even an animal or plant.

“Everything about the past of American life had to be absolutely correct.”

The mural was completed in March 1961 and dedicated the next month.

Truman died on Dec. 26, 1972, at age 88. The next day his body lay in state in the Truman Library lobby, in front of Benton’s mural, and the artist was among the many who paid his respects. Benton died of a heart attack at his Kansas City home on Jan. 19, 1975, at age 85.

Henry Adams, professor of American art at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and author of a 1989 Benton biography, thinks the friendship between the two represents a unique Missouri story.

“Missouri in this period was an extraordinary sort of center point of conflict between East and North, North and South, from the Civil War era up through Harry Truman’s time. I consider the Kansas City area the hotly contested heartland of the United States, and I think the tension between Truman and Benton had a little bit to do with that.

“So it is sort of wonderful that the two of them became friends.”

Also on exhibit

Other Thomas Hart Benton paintings are on display as part of the exhibit devoted to Benton’s Truman Library mural.

Five are being exhibited courtesy of the Thomas Hart Benton and Rita P. Benton Testamentary Trusts of UMB Bank. They include a Benton self-portrait from 1912 and a Benton portrait of Harry Truman rendered in 1971, a year before the former president’s death.

“It is Benton’s only real portrait of Truman and also the last life portrait done of Harry Truman,” said Clay Bauske, Truman Library museum curator.

Also on display are three paintings loaned by the State Historical Society of Missouri. Two are considered part of Benton’s “Year of Peril” series, which includes several paintings completed by Benton during World War II.

“The Sowers” depicts subhuman soldiers sowing the earth with human skulls. In “Starry Night,” a sailor drowns after his ship has been sunk.

Another painting, “Negro Soldier,” completed in 1942, is also on loan from the society.

“Benton completed these paintings during the same years that Truman came into national prominence as head of the Truman Committee,” said Bauske, referring to the U.S. Senate committee that investigated waste and inefficiency in the country’s defense build-up.

“The painting ‘Negro Soldier’ is symbolic, too, as Truman desegregated the armed forces as president,” Bauske said.

The sentiments presented by “The Sowers” may reside uncomfortably among contemporary sensibilities, said Joan Stack, the historical society’s arts collection curator.

“There is a temptation to read the ‘Year of Peril’ paintings very superficially, and you may not see the real artistic vision that Benton gave us,” Stack said.

“When you look at those paintings you feel anxiety and fear of the unknown. You almost feel you are entering the nightmare of 1942. More than anything else they take you back to that place, which is not a very pleasant place to be.”

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