The gold dust twins: Thomas Hart Benton, Walt Disney, and the mining of frontier mythology

Jake Milgram Wien Exhibitions


Fig. 1. Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975), c. 1944. Gelatin silver print, 9 ¼ by 7 ¼ inches. Private collection. Fig. 2. Walt Disney (1901–1966) by George Hurrell (1904–1992). Gelatin silver print, 9 by 7 inches. Courtesy of Laguna Art Museum and Walt Disney Company © Estate of George Hurrell.

In March 1946 Thomas Hart Benton (Fig. 1) and Walt Disney (Fig. 2) took a meeting, as Hollywood would have it, just as Disney Studios was beginning to consider a project giving new life to an old hero, Davy Crockett. On the drawing board, to which Benton was invited to lend his hand, was a movie conceived as an animated folk operetta.1 You can picture Benton and Disney in an executive conference room bursting with creative talent—not unlike the smoke-filled atmospherics at 20th Century-Fox that Benton had sketched during his first trip to Hollywood (Fig. 6).2 It was their second encounter, the first having occurred before America entered the war when Disney gave Benton and several other artists a tour of the new Disney Studios in Burbank.3 During that summer of 1940 Disney was putting the finishing touches on Fantasia, a movie melding high and low that solidified his standing as a box-office powerhouse in the animation business.

An artistic collaboration between Walt Disney and Thomas Hart Benton was almost inevitable. Both were born and raised in the American heartland, lived and worked for many years in Kansas City, and flourished during the Depression. Their childhood impressions of the rural Midwest were centered on the American frontier as a populist stage where historical forces played out. Both sought to inform and entertain broad audiences with strikingly original, colorful, visual creations that were grounded in a secular, democratic nationalism. Both were enchanted by European painting, folk tales, and myth, and wove them into their artworks. And most importantly, both had well-developed senses of humor and were born storytellers whose narratives capitalized on their ability to draw character types and situate them in carefully researched settings.

Mickey Mouse initially brought Disney and Benton together, at least in a virtual way. Mickey began to appear in comic strips in 1930. By 1931 he was waving the “Benton” flag (Fig. 5): Disney sent the drawing to his alma mater in Kansas City—the Benton Grammar School he had attended from 1911 to 1917, located on Benton Boulevard, both named for Senator Thomas Hart Benton, the painter’s great-great-uncle.4 In 1932 Benton included Mickey Mouse in an array of cartoon characters he featured in Political Business and Intellectual Ballyhoo, a ceiling panel of The Arts of Life in America, one of eight panels installed in the reading room of the library of the Whitney Museum of American Art, then located on West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. (The panels were acquired by the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut in 1953.)

Benton and Disney had to be well aware of one another’s work: by the mid-1930s both were public figures often featured in Time and Life magazines. Benton had even made a place for himself in Hollywood when 20th Century-Fox commissioned him to produce five-character portraits and one moody panorama to promote two of their films—The Grapes of Wrath (1940), directed by John Ford; and Swamp Water (1941), directed by Jean Renoir. To produce these promotional lithographs Benton worked from sketches he assembled while journeying through the American South and West and also, evidently, from studio photographs (see Figs. 8, 9). His Departure of the Joads from this period is a masterful painting conveying the pathos of a migrant family heading west (Fig. 7).

Benton’s reputation as a painter of rugged American individualism and his deep roots in American history were also well known. His namesake, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, was the early nineteenth century’s champion of westward expansion and overland trade routes to the Pacific. The artist’s work reflected this heritage. In the third section of his earliest mural series, the American Historical Epic, frontiersmen and colonial settlers clash with Native Americans amidst stylized mountains (Fig. 11). Shortly before his meeting with Disney, Benton had illustrated a new edition of Francis Parkman’s classic The Oregon Trail, emphasizing the Native American warriors and armed frontiersmen described in the text (Fig. 14). In 1945 Benton had completed his riotous Custer’s Last Stand, which encapsulates his long fascination with frontier violence as historical entertainment (Fig. 12). The temper of these works was informed by his vivid memories of both Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis where the aged Apache chief Geronimo was on display sitting in a teepee.5 Benton was to continue to wrestle with the exploration, conquest, and settlement of the American frontier in future murals and easel paintings (see Fig. 13).6

While discussing the Davy Crockett project with Disney, Benton ran into Salvador Dalí, who had been collaborating with the studio on a six-minute episode for a movie in the early stages of development. (Disney was intrigued by Dalí’s surrealism and Dalí considered Disney a fellow surrealist.7) Dalí encouraged Benton to explore an artistic collaboration with the studio.8 But unlike Dalí, who conjured images of fantasy and nightmare from the unconscious mind, Benton required a storyline based on objective reality. With a narrative in hand, he could sketch rapidly and skillfully. At Disney Studios he worked with a few musicians on the Crockett project to develop a score and story for which he would “concoct and draw the characters.”9 Character development often required multiple meetings in which Disney typically took an active role.

As the time passed, however, Benton’s vision of the legendary Davy Crockett failed to materialize. “There were practical objections to all the ideas I dragged up,” he recalled.10 Even the compelling historical fact of Crockett’s demise—killed at the Alamo by the Mexican army—might offend Latin Americans, so the ending had to be finessed.11 After a few weeks at Disney Studios Benton returned home, withdrew from the project, and gruffly informed Disney that “Walt Disney’s stuff is good enough for my money as it is without a lot of damn painters getting in it.” He added that he was “too ‘set’ in my ways to be very adaptable.”12 Subsequently, Dalí’s project with Disney also foundered, although for different reasons.

Benton sold his interest in the Crockett project to Disney for three thousand dollars, a financial decision he came to regret because frontier fabulism, spearheaded by Disney, became a staple of American popular culture in the Eisenhower era.13 Frontierland was the largest of the four theme subdivisions of Disneyland, which opened to great fanfare in July 1955 in Anaheim, California. It capitalized on the colossal popularity of Disney’s Davy Crockett on ABC, television’s first mini-series, which premiered in December 1954.

While Disney filmed Crockett for television and readied Frontierland, Benton seized the opportunity to work on another frontier project: Burt Lancaster and Harold Hecht, co-producers of The Kentuckian (1955), commissioned him to produce a painting for the movie poster and for newspaper and magazine advertisements. Hecht, in particular, hoped to capture some of the media attention the artist invariably attracted, such as the storm of publicity Benton generated when he proclaimed that his paintings would be better off in “clubs, barrooms and saloons” than in museums. To the artist’s delight (and with his complicity), Billy Rose placed The Rape of Persephone—Benton’s huge painting of a nude showgirl cast in the role of a classical goddess—on the red plush walls of his Diamond Horseshoe nightclub in New York.14

Aware of Hecht’s enjoyment of this 1941 media kerfuffle, Benton produced an even larger painting for The Kentuckian. Heroic in size, the oil on canvas stood more than six feet tall and five feet wide (Fig. 4).15 Its composition was based on a studio photograph (and informed by a screenplay) Benton evidently received from Hecht (see Fig. 3). Benton made the image his own by adding the dog and boy, setting the figures against a radiant blue sky, angling them forward to heighten the drama of their westward movement, and shifting the horn to the boy’s hand. The movie was adapted from a recently published novel set in 1820s Kentucky, whose title, The Gabriel Horn, referred to a horn blown to signal a hunting catch or the arrival of daybreak. By movie’s end, the boy had matured enough to possess the symbolic horn and muster the strength to sound it.

In October 1954, just weeks after Disney himself was on location in the Tennessee wilderness filming Davy Crockett, Benton was on location with Lancaster in Owensboro, Kentucky, sketching the dog, boy, and local terrain. Back in his Kansas City studio he refined the sketches, reduced the three figures to boxlike geometries for a cubic drawing inspired by the working methods of Italian Renaissance master Luca Cambiaso, made clay models of the three figures, conceived final studies in various mediums, and drew a full-scale cartoon of the composition.16 With these preliminaries behind him Benton was ready to realize the final painting. The press and no doubt the co-producers were delighted with the occasion of a photo opportunity of Benton painting Lancaster’s portrait in his studio (see Fig. 16). Although the studio photo of Lancaster noted earlier may have provided Benton with a starting point, the publicity shot shows that Benton worked from life and explains why his response was an emphatic “Hell no!” when he was asked if he worked from photographs.17

The poster featuring Benton’s painting bore a statement boasting of his reputation as a “great American artist” depicting a “great American motion picture” (Fig. 15). Critics thought otherwise and faulted Lancaster, a novice director, for having “no sense of dramatic focus or control.”18 His Kentuckian was no match for Disney’s charismatic Crockett whose Indian skirmishes and bromance were far more compelling.

Lancaster gave Benton’s painting to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1977. The art critic Hilton Kramer spotted it there and derided it as “the purest kitsch.” The “light in the painting is pure movie light, and the décor is as phony as anything ever produced on a Hollywood set,” he scoffed.19 Well before other critics, Kramer had identified what made Benton’s paintings so identifiable—their cinematic style.

Benton had indeed set out to produce paintings that would rival the movies with their sculptural three-dimensional forms, saturated colors, and surfaces that appeared as if lit by the projected light on a silver screen. Why had critics in Benton’s lifetime not drawn the comparison? Perhaps because black-and-white movies dominated the first half of the twentieth century and Benton’s paintings were awash with color. Where Kramer found reason to fault Benton for his popular style, subsequent generations have been intrigued by the ingenuity with which the artist responded to the revolutionary force of cinema, the world’s new art form.

JAKE MILGRAM WIEN is an independent curator and historian, and co-curator of American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood.

American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, in collaboration with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum from June 6 to September 7. Future showings will be included in our Events department.

1 Reeves Lewenthal, Benton’s dealer and director of Associated American Artists, arranged for Benton to meet with Disney and discuss the project. 2 Benton mentions his “five trips to Hollywood” in a letter to Herbert and Ruth Krigel, dated August 23, 1970, in a private collection. 3 Harry Salpeter, “Art Comes to Hollywood,” Esquire, vol. 14, no. 3 (September 1940), p. 173. A photograph of the artists’ tour captures Benton handling and admiring models of characters from Fantasia. Beside him are George Biddle, Reeves Lewenthal, Ernest Fiene, Grant Wood, and Georges Schreiber. See 4 A drawing of Mickey Mouse also heads the reply letter Disney wrote to the school principal, which expresses his fond school memories; see The Bentonian (Fratcher Printing Company, Kansas City, Missouri, 1931), p. 47. 5 Thomas Hart Benton, An Artist in America, 4th rev. ed. (University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 1983), p. 14. 6 For more on western themes and Benton’s art, see Austen Barron Bailly, “True West: Thomas Hart Benton and American Epics,” in American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, ed. Austen Barron Bailly (DelMonico Books/Prestel, New York, 2015), pp. 30-43. 7 Dalí described Disney as a surrealist in “Surrealism in Hollywood,” trans. George Davis, Harper’s Bazaar, vol. 71, no. 6 (June 1937), pp. 68, 132, republished in Dalí and Film, ed. Matthew Gale (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2007), pp. 154–156. Dalí signed a contract with Disney on January 14, 1946, see Félix Fanès, “Destino,” in Dalí and Film, p. 188. 8 Benton, An Artist in America, p. 312. 9 Ibid., p. 312. 10 Ibid. 11 Benton alluded to the imperatives of “good business,” which meant pleasing audiences across the Americas, England, and continental Europe; see Robert S. Gallagher, “An Artist in America,” American Heritage, vol. 24, no. 4 (June 1973), p. 44. 12 Thomas Hart Benton to Walt Disney, March 19, 1946, D Folder, Walt Disney Correspondence, 1945–1946, A-K, A1534, Walt Disney Archives, Burbank, California; cited in Neal Gabler, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (Knopf, New York, 2006), pp. 514, 771. 13 The regret is revealed late in his life; see Gallagher, “An Artist in America,” p. 44. 14 Hecht’s recollection of the media tempest is noted in James Bacon, “Put Art in a Film Ad, Thomas Benton Painting Will Soon Announce ‘Kentuckian’,” Kansas City Star, August 9, 1955. See also “Benton Rejoices as Art is Hung in ‘Saloon’; ‘Persephone’ Adorns the Diamond Horseshoe,” New York Times, April 9, 1941, p. 27. The painting is now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Billy Rose admired Benton’s work and in 1940 purchased Weighing Cotton (1939, Yale University Art Gallery); see “Rose Buys Benton Work…,” New York Times, November 4, 1940, p. 38. 15 Benton received $6,500 for the painting plus a few thousand more for expenses and royalties on prints and merchandizing; Kansas City Star, August 9, 1955. 16 Numerous preliminary sketches Benton conceived for The Kentuckian are reproduced in American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, pp. 58–64. 17 “Heck no!” is how the press actually reported Benton’s response to the question, although Benton “used a word much stronger and emphatic than ‘heck’”; see Joe Creason, “Artist Thomas Hart Benton Does Thorough Job Sketching Burt Lancaster for ‘The Kentuckian’ Ballyhoo,” Louisville Courier-Journal, October 17, 1954, V5. 18 Bosley Crowther, “Lancaster as ‘The Kentuckian,’” New York Times, September 2, 1955. 19 Hilton Kramer, “Los Angeles Putting Focus on Modern Art,” ibid., July 25, 1980, C20.