NEOSHO, Mo. — One of the best-known artists in U.S. history was born and raised right here in Neosho.
“Became a prolific artist and his work is in museums all over the world,” said Brad Belk, MSSU Community Historian.
But fame didn’t come quickly for Thomas Hart Benton.
He left his hometown at the age of 17 to try his hand in the mining industry in Joplin. Within weeks, he realized it wasn’t for him but he still needed a job.
That’s when his artistic talent landed him a job at the Joplin American Newspaper.
“Lot of times they had characters and cartoon type characterizations before the photograph really became valuable in the newspaper business, and he went in there and did a quick sketch and next thing you know, he’s got a job and that’s his first professional gig,” said Belk.
But that newspaper didn’t last long and he found himself out of a job.
He then headed for the Windy City to study at the renowned Chicago Museum of Art, as well as overseas in Paris.
After serving as a sketch artist in the U.S. Navy during WWI, he returned to the U.S. and started to make a name for himself with his depictions of life in the American Midwest.
“They were calling him sort of a regional artist, but he had a unique technique. His figures seemed to have more bulk and stature and that was purposefully done, and of course, he had vivid colors,” said Belk.
He finished his first of many murals in 1923. One of which is inside the Missouri State Capital in Jefferson City.
Adding to his growing national and worldwide fame, Belk says he was more than just an artist.
“He said what was on his mind. Sometimes not politically correct, but nonetheless, he believed in sort of speaking his mind and probably would have fit in well in this world,” said Belk.
He was in his 70s when he was commissioned to create a mural in recognition of the Joplin centennial in 1973 and died a few years later at his studio in Kansas City at the age of 75.