PEMcast 005: Epic American

(Download a pdf transcript)

In this episode of the PEMcast, we examine the life of one of America’s most famous 20th century artists, who you may not have even heard of. We recently surveyed museum-goers about Thomas Hart Benton.  Only a quarter knew who he was. We set out to change this…starting behind the scenes as the exhibition American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood is being installed, before embarking on an audio journey that spans from Martha’s Vineyard to Hollywood. We explore the life and legacy of a man who loved travel, old world artistic techniques and the movies.


Thomas Hart Benton, Hollywood, 1937-38. Tempera with oil on canvas, mounted on board, 56 x 84 in. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Bequest of the artist. Photo by Jamison Miller. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Austen Barron Bailly, the exhibition’s lead curator, wrote her dissertation on Benton and brought this exhibition to us when she came to PEM in 2013.

austen with benton book

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

Austen selfie

Austen’s selfie with Benton’s Marlon Brando in our Selfie Station which features a reproduction of the painting ‘Poker Night (From a Streetcar Named Desire).’ #Dreamer #pemepicselfie

book shelf

Austen’s Benton bookshelf. Photo by Dinah Cardin

Art conservator Mary Schafer accompanied some of the paintings from her museum, the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

austen and mary

Austen and Mary examine ‘The Kentuckian.’ Photo by Dinah Cardin

Rob Lazebnik, a writer and producer for The Simpsons, is a Benton fan. Lazebnik owns a Benton drawing of a fat cat Hollywood executive that perfectly depicts the kind of people to avoid in Hollywood. The piece is part of our exhibition. Catch Lazebnik’s great humor pieces in the Wall Street Journal, like this essay called A message for the Class of 2013.


On loan signage created by Rob Lezebnik. Courtesy photo

Benton mentored Jackson Pollock, who later ushered in abstract expressionism.


Photo by Hans Namuth. Courtesy of Wikipedia

For more on Benton, see  a Connected  post written by the artist’s daughter, Jessie Benton.


Courtesy photo

It’s a loving tribute to her father and a look back at the Hollywood stars she met during Benton’s interesting career. Jessie Benton says the time spent every summer for 50 years in Martha’s Vineyard was her favorite.


Thomas Hart Benton, Self Portrait With Rita, about 1924. Oil on canvas, 49 x 39 3/8 in. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource, NY. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood is at PEM through September 7. It then travels to the The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth and the Milwaukee Art Museum.

We’re pleased to share that we’ve recently won the silver Muse Award from the American Alliance of Museums for the PEMcast. The judges commended us on conveying the warmth and vibrant curiosity of PEM’s staff, while linking the museum and our offerings to broader cultural issues. Thanks for listening.

Read more about the Benton exhibition at PEM in this story by Sebastian Smee in the Boston Globe. For more audio, listen to WBUR’s piece on our Benton exhibition.

Music for this episode:
The Sun is Scheduled to Come Out Tomorrow” by Chris Zabriskie
“Schwäne” by Mistaa
Support artists like Mistaa and Chris Zabriskie by supporting the 2015 Open Music Contest and the Free Music Archive


  1. Susan Chandler says:

    Go to see Benton and be delighted!
    Do not miss this!

  2. geoffrey neate says:

    I was at your opening last night last and the display of Benton’s art was excellent. Unfortunately the pre ipod was extremely bad, voiced by other by other folks also that I had conversed with whilst viewing. I just wanted to get up and leave as the audio without visuals was conveyed by two young commentators seemingly all about themselves with much fill in, and very little about the artist. What ever happened to the good old days of NPR and the lucid tone of Bob Edwards.

  3. Dinah Cardin
    Dinah Cardin says:

    While podcasting is gaining in popularity across the globe, we recognize that the audio storytelling format might not be everybody’s cup of tea. The PEMcast is co – hosted by PEM staffers who introduce and guide listeners through the behind-the-scenes stories of the museum. We’re excited about the potential of this new format and committed to creating high quality, thought provoking storytelling. In this episode our co – hosts interview curators, registrars and collectors who all had a hand in creating our newest exhibition, American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood.

  4. John Grimshaw says:

    Delightful insight into a wonderful show. I wasn’t aware that PEM had done any podcasts. I thoroughly enjoyed this and intend to listen to the others.

  5. Kathy Meyer says:

    Just lovely. Loved the podcast. Wish I could see the exhibit.

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