Thomas Hart Benton was born on April 15, 1889 in Neosho, Missouri, USA into an influential clan of politicians and powerbrokers. Benton's father was a lawyer and United States congressman and his great-uncle was Senator from Missouri.
Benton spent his childhood shuttling between Washington D.C. and Missouri. He rebelled against his grooming for a future political career, and preferred to develop his interest in art. As a teenager, he worked as a cartoonist for the Joplin American newspaper.
In 1907 Benton enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, but left for Paris, France in 1909 to continue his art education at the Académie Julian. In Paris, Benton met other North American artists among whom Diego Rivera and Stanton Macdonald-Wright. Wright's influence gave a strong Synchromist leaning to Benton's work.
Benton returned to New York City in 1913. His work as a draftsman in the United States Navy in 1919 changed his style significantly. His artwork during his navy stint concentrated on realistic sketches and drawings of shipyard work and life—a change of focus that would continue throughout his career.
On return to New York in the early 1920s, Benton declared himself an enemy of modernism and painted naturalistic and representational work today known as Regionalism. Benton taught at the Art Students League, and was active in leftist politics. He was heavily influenced by El Greco.
In 1932 Benton broke through to the mainstream. A relative unknown, he was chosen to produce the murals of Indiana life that would become that state's contribution to the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, Illinois. The Indiana Murals stirred controversy; Benton painted everyday people in an unflattering light, including Ku Klux Klan members. The controversy landed Benton on the cover of Time magazine and made him a household name. The mural panels are currently displayed at Indiana University in Bloomington.
In 1935 Benton left New York, where artistic debates were heated, for a teaching job at the Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. His works often show the melancholy, desperation and beauty of small-town life. Benton's sympathy was with the working class and the small farmer, unable to gain material advantage despite the Industrial Revolution.
Benton's students at the Art Institute included many of the future painters of the Midwest heartland. His most famous student, Jackson Pollock, whom he mentored in the Art Students League, would go on to found the Abstract Expressionist movement—wildly different from Benton's own style. Jackson Pollock often said that Benton's traditional teachings gave him something to rebel against. Pollock never gave up on the idea art needed impact on the audience, in this way he followed Benton.
In 1941, Benton was dismissed from the Art Institute after calling the typical art museum "a graveyard run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists and a swing in his gait" and similar homophobic remarks. Despite this, his work remained popular until the end of the decade, when it was eclipsed by the rise of Abstract Expressionism.
For the rest of his career Benton concentrated on murals in public buildings in the Midwest. Benton died on January 19, 1975 at work in his studio, with a brush in his hand.