A Social History
of the State of Indiana
Thomas Hart Benton's American Murals
In 1932 Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned by the Indiana Department of Conservation to create a mural for the Indiana state exhibition at the 1933 A Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago. Richard Lieber, the director of the department, wanted to present a story that went beyond what most people associated with Indiana—farmland, flat plains and county fairs—and proclaim Indiana’s rich history.
Benton had completed the mural The Arts of Life in America at the Whitney Museum the same year that he was chosen to glorify the Hoosier State. A Social History of the State of Indiana was a similar undertaking—both murals are vast and passionate studies of the struggles and triumphs of American life and culture, rendered in a grand style inspired by Mexican muralists and the spirit of the WPA.
Benton spent six months traveling the state creating character and mise-en-scène sketches for what would become a sixteen panel, two-hundred-foot painting on the cultural, political and industrial history of Indiana. The mural fixed an unsparing eye on American history, with scenes that range from celebrations of indigenous potters to the forced removal of Native Americans, a Socialist rally led by Eugene V. Debs, the stronghold the KKK had on regional politics in the 1920s, and their eventual removal from power, thanks to the tenacious efforts of the Indiana press. Benton also honored Indiana’s farmers, wildlife, writers and artists and the steel and railroad industries.
The current lot is a sketch of a portion of Cultural Panel 8, titled Leisure and Literature and depicts the Indiana-born Impressionist painter William Forsyth at an easel, a fair vendor with his curious dog, a burly bartender and his wobbly patron at a saloon and scholars in the foreground reading. Benton gifted this sketch to Wallace Richards, one of the supervisors of the exhibition. The mural, in its entirety, now resides at the Indiana University Auditorium in Bloomington.
I visualized this history as realistic and factual. Realistic as to form, and factual as to content.
Thomas Hart Benton