Thomas Hart Benton & the Navy: A Spotlight into Benton’s Naval History

Thomas Hart Benton used family influence to get a position in the Navy in 1918 to help avoid being drafted in the infantry, which helped him solidify a position safely off of the battlefield. Benton was assigned to the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia where he began to make drawings of boats and construction projects while being stationed. Most of his drawings were for record-keeping purposes, as he was helping the Navy document the projects with a photographer.


Harbor Scene, Norfolk, Thomas Hart Benton, 1918, Watercolor, 10 x 14.5 inches
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One of Benton’s Navy watercolor drawings is Harbor Scene, Norfolk. A descriptive representation of what the scenery was like in Norfolk, Virginia. Even though Benton wasn’t chiefly remembered as a watercolorist, he did have an exceptional talent for this medium which was apparent in his works throughout 1918 including Ship with Figures and Tree and Tugboat at the Wharf. Many of Benton’s watercolor works are reminiscent of the Impressionist of Post-Impressionist style of painting; bold colors and shadows. As Benton was also influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, he became increasingly interested in the dynamics of figure and ground, dramatic patterns, certain tones of color in particular areas such as the sea or sky.

While many of Thomas Hart Benton’s works have been on display, his Naval works have traveled through exhibits such as the 24-work collection exhibited at the P.E.O Foundation Art Gallery at Cottley College in Nevada, Missouri. This exhibit featured Thomas Hart Benton’s works gathered from the Navy Art Collection, of World War II.

Most recently, Benton’s Cut the Line oil painting is currently on view at the Chrysler Museum of Art. An exhibition entitled “Thomas Hart Benton and the Navy” showcases this heroic period in American history captured by one of the quintessential American Regionalist painters of the era: “…an exhibition of steel, smoke, saltwater, and sinew all captured in a signature style.”


Cut the Line, Thomas Hart Benton, Oil on canvas, 1944
Currently on view at the Chrysler Museum of  Art

Because of Benton’s studies at the Art Institute in Chicago and the Academie Julian in Paris, Benton has been able to experiment with impressionism, pointillism, synchronism and his work showed the influences of Edouard Manet and Paul Cezanne.

Shown below is a 10-minute movie produced by Encyclopedia Britannica Films featuring Thomas Hart Benton and the process which Benton used to create and paint his famous murals:

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Benton died in 1975, leaving behind a body of work that remains one of the most sweeping chronicles of 20th century American culture. View all of Thomas Hart Benton‘s works online at Kiechel Fine Art.


Source: Chrysler Museum of Art, Henry Adams, Kiechel Fine Art

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