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Thomas Hart Benton Missouri Heritage Trail
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This is a contributing entry for Thomas Hart Benton Missouri Heritage Trail and only appears as part of that tour.Learn More.

The Kansas City Public Library has a copy of Thomas Hart Benton’s Achelous and Hercules on the first floor of the Central Library near the Genevieve Guldner Gallery. The original mural hung in Harzfield’s department store on Petticoat Lane in Kanas City, Missouri, from 1947 to 1984. Benton’s Regionalist focus and signature style continue in this painting. He celebrates the wealth Kansas City was finding after World War II.

Achelous and Hercules (1947)

A white man wrestles a bull. Two white men and a Black man come from his left to help him. On his right, two women sit on a cornucopia.

By the late 1940s, Thomas Hart Benton had alienated many of his friends again. He was in financial trouble after leaving his New York art dealer. People were no longer interested in buying Regionalist art. Somewhat depressed, Benton used this piece as a metaphorical response to his critics. His works became less literal and contained less criticism of the world.

In 1946, Harzfield’s president Lester Siegel made a promise to Benton. The artist could paint whatever he wanted for the department store as long as it was family-friendly. Benton appreciated this freedom and decided on a classic Greek/Roman myth. The half-god fought the river god to gain the love of princess Deianira. When Hercules tore off one of the bull’s horns, it turned into a cornucopia. This symbol of a plentiful harvest along a river “domesticated the Greek myth and told the story of Missouri settlement.”[1] The Army Corps of Engineers was creating flood-control projects in the area. These constructions protected the crops that fueled the city’s economy. After World War II, the Midwest was trying to become a significant part of the globe. Benton emphasized Kansas City’s strength and importance. He wanted to make a point that New York and Paris were not the only influential cities.

Benton set this millennia-old myth in the contemporary Midwest. Hercules wears blue jeans but no shirt. Around him are rolling hills, a silo, at least one Black man, and other people found in the countryside. The painting continued Benton’s Regionalist focus despite not directly depicting current events. Though he had been very literal in the past, this art movement did not require extreme realism. Benton’s exaggerated style proves that. The scenes of Jesse James and Tom Pendergast in his Missouri capitol mural also drew on mythology, just some that was more recent.

The Allied Stores Corporation bought Harzfield’s in 1984. In 1985, the company sold the original painting to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where it is now on display. Benton is likely the most famous artist from Missouri to have works at the Smithsonian. Though Benton focused on the Midwest, his art was of national importance. His presence at the United States’ national art museum shows that he was not a marginal nobody, as many critics believed.

By using an ancient myth to represent 1940s Kansas City, Benton used one story to tell another. The artist’s role in the Regionalist movement made him important enough to be in the Smithsonian. The Central Library is a hub of activity. The building houses exhibits and research material about the Kansas City region. Displaying a painting by such an accomplished artist complements the library’s mission to help visitors educate themselves. Learning to appreciate art is just one skill that people can learn there.

  1. Doss, Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism, 365.

Achelous and Hercules, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed May 2nd 2022.

Adams, Henry. Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.

Doss, Erika. Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism: From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism. Chicago. The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Thomas Hart Benton Mural, The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed May 2nd 2022.

Wolff, Justin. Thomas Hart Benton: A Life. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

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