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"American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood" on view this summer at Milwaukee Art Museum
Thomas Hart Benton, People of Chilmark (Figure Composition), 1920. Oil on canvas, 65 5⁄8 × 77 5⁄8 in. (166.5 × 197.3 cm). Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1966, 66.468. Photo by Cathy Carver. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

MILWAUKEE, WIS.- The Milwaukee Art Museum shares this year’s summer exhibition, American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, on view from June 10 to Sept. 5. This is the first major exhibition on Benton in more than 25 years, and portrays the connection between his film industry experience and artistic career through approximately 100 works. Visitors to the exhibition will be transported as they step into a gallery filled with screen-worthy melodramas, war sagas and western spectacles.

American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) was influenced by Hollywood’s motion picture industry and reinvented 20th-century American narratives by incorporating cinematic production techniques with an Old Master European style. Benton became acutely aware of the motion picture industry’s rising influence and was sent by “Life” magazine to work in Hollywood on commission, where he discovered visual and thematic artistic inspiration.

“This exhibition is really the first to cohesively connect Benton’s cinema experience, from subject matter to techniques, with his paintings,” says Brandon Ruud, Abert Family Curator of American Art at the Milwaukee Art Museum. “His fusion of traditional painting and contemporary, larger-than-life storytelling fueled by Hollywood is really extraordinary, and we are so pleased to share it at the Museum this summer.”

Themes of cultural identity, westward expansion, tolerance, prejudice and the American Dream were given epic treatment on the silver screen, and Benton harnessed those dramatic portrayals in his paintings. Perhaps Benton’s most notable work, American Historical Epic, is a series painted between 1920 and 1928 and runs more than 60 feet in length. Through this, he depicted the nation’s past in unconventional ways to engage controversial issues such as race relations and national identity.

Like Hollywood, he recognized typecasting as a way to transform individuals into a cast of American characters and personalities. Between 1937 and 1954, Benton painted five major works for projects related to motion pictures, including John Ford’s film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Among these nearly 100 works, there are 50 paintings and murals along with a selection of his drawings, prints and illustrated books. In addition, rare archival photographs and related ephemera, film clips and stills also represent this quintessential American artist.

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