Missouri, the Heart of the Nation

By William E. Parrish; Charles T. Jones Jr. et al. | Go to book overview

THIRTEEN
Missouri Develops Culturally

The Frontier Artist

Nineteenth century Missouri society, rooted as it was in the frontier experience, was not always friendly toward the artist. Thomas Hart Benton wrote in his autobiography, An Artist in America, that the state's rural society was lacking in "aesthetic sensibility." Born in Neosho in 1889, Benton grew up among people only a generation or two removed from the early settlers who had pioneered the region. Like their forefathers they worked hard from sunup to sundown with few hours left over for leisure-time activities. They often regarded with suspicion and hostility any able-bodied man who wasted away his precious hours in drawing pictures. Benton left Neosho at his first opportunity for places more hospitable to the artist and his work. He did not return until years later, when his father lay in the hospital dying of cancer.

Although Benton may have resented the rural, small-town opinions of the artist and his work, he, like many artists before him, thrived on the subject matter found in Missouri and on the western frontier. Whereas frontier society may have discouraged some artists, the frontier itself attracted them. Many early nineteenth century artists came to sketch and paint frontier villages, scenes of striking natural beauty, the awesome Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the various frontier types, and the Indians.

Major Stephen H. Long took two artists on his expedition of 1819–20 to "furnish sketches of landscapes distinguished for their beauty and grandeur miniature likenesses or portraits of distinguished Indians groups of savages engaged in celebrating their festivals, or sitting in council." The artist's record made on an official

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