Narrator: Thomas Hart Benton, one of the most influential artists of his time, was inspired by the Mexican muralists to paint American history on a grand scale.
Erika Doss: So in the American Historical Epic Benton is trying to provide a picture of American history from below rather than above, sort of a people’s history, a grassroots history of America—warts and all.
Narrator: Erika Doss is a professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
Erika Doss: We see everything from war and violence, and we also see a lot of conflict between European settlers and Native Americans. We see scenes of slavery, we see scenes of slavers. Benton doesn’t hold anything back in terms of the early aggression and violence he felt characterized the making of America.
All of Benton’s figures are wiry and stretched out, sort of like plastic figurines, like a Ken Doll or a Barbie Doll. None of them are realistic or naturalistic in that regard, and what he’s trying to do is show agency or energy and physical action in the making of America.
Narrator: In some cases, particularly with his depictions of African Americans and Native Americans, Benton’s efforts to create archetypes that could function on an epic scale resulted in exaggerated, stereotyped figures.