America Today Goes to Metropolitan Museum

American artist Thomas Hart Benton’s epic mural America Today—a sweeping panorama of American life, celebrating the promise of modern industry and technology and the accomplishments of working people in the boom years of the 1920s—has been donated by AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company to The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The announcement was made jointly today, Dec. 12, by Thomas P. Campbell, the Museum’s director and CEO, and Mark Pearson, AXA Equitable chairman and CEO.

Benton (1889–1975) created the ten-panel mural cycle in 1930–31 as a commission for the third-floor boardroom of the New School for Social Research in New York City.

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Referring to sketches he made during his travels around the U.S. in the 1920s, Benton initially executed nine of the panels, which were first seen by the public when the International-style building designed by Joseph Urban at 66 West 12th Street opened on New Year’s Day, 1931; he completed the tenth panel later.

The mural cycle filled the four walls of the 30-by-22-foot boardroom. Figures of farmers, coal miners, steelworkers, architects and builders, doctors and teachers surrounded viewers, representing a cross-section of American life.

In 1986, American art scholar Lloyd Goodrich remarked that Benton “took the whole face of America and tried to make a work of art out of it….It was a new technique completely in mural painting, of actually taking reality and making mural art directly out of it.”

Although Benton received no fee for the commission, America Today established him as his era’s leading American muralist. Its success provided the impetus for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) mural programs of the Great Depression.

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Rakesh Raman