Synopsis by Clarke Fountain
Documentarian Ken Burns, better known for his epic studies of the Civil War and of Baseball, here explores the life and works of one of the hallmark painters of the U.S., Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975). He is most famous for his ability to evoke the vast rolling spaces of the Great Plains, and for his murals and other large works depicting life and work in rural America. He is the namesake and grand-nephew of the unusually well-remembered U.S. Senator from Missouri, whose career was intertwined with that of President Andrew Jackson. Benton the painter was born in Neosho, Missouri, started his art career as a newspaper cartoonist, and then studied in Paris and Europe. For a while, his work reflected the fashionable avant garde syles of painting, including cubism, but the work for which he is best remembered combines his earlier gift at cartooning in a realistic style which might be called "neo-realism." The period which saw the greatest proliferation of his work was the 1930's. Though later his works were collected and displayed at major museums, and one of his students went on to considerable fame himself (Jackson Pollock), his works were not critically acclaimed during his lifetime, in part due to his extreme homophobia and disdain for the New York art scene, and he has his detractors even today. The documentary includes interviews with Benton's wife, with critics and museum curators, and features many of his paintings. Also included are scenes from Benton's home movies.