Visitors to the Harry S Truman Presidential Library are awestruck by the fantastic mural displayed in the building’s main lobby, “Independence and the Opening of the West.” It is perhaps the last great mural painted by Thomas Hart Benton, a Missouri native and one of America’s great painters of the 20th century. The story of the mural’s creation presents two of Missouri’s favorite sons coming together on a grand project.
In the late 1950s, Benton was nearing 70 years of age and his work was no longer in fashion, as it had been in the 1920s and ’30s. Still, the artist was energetically producing his unique style of paintings in his Kansas City studio. Meanwhile, former President Truman worked almost every day at his presidential library in Independence.
Truman and Benton had met only twice prior to their collaboration on the mural. In 1949, following a press conference, Truman was introduced to Benton, and in their brief encounter, he asked, “Are you still painting those controversial pictures?”
“When I get the chance,” Benton replied.
A few years later, at a dinner in the home of Randall Jessee, a prominent Kansas City television personality, Truman made a casual remark indicating some annoyance with Benton’s mural, “The Social History of Missouri,” painted decades earlier in the Missouri State Capitol. Apparently Truman was upset at Benton’s unfavorable depiction of Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast, Truman’s long-time mentor and ally.
Nevertheless, Truman and Benton were brought together on several occasions in 1959 by David Lloyd, the executive director of the Harry S. Truman Library Inc., which had raised the money to build the library. At these informal gatherings, and over a few glasses of bourbon and branch water, Truman and Benton discovered they had similar Missouri roots. Both were born in the late 19th century in small towns in southwest Missouri, and the two men had both experienced unlikely paths to world prominence. In addition, both were avid students of American history.
As they began serious discussions for the mural, Benton found the president to be a “simple, straightforward, essentially friendly man, without an iota of pretentiousness in his makeup.” Eventually it became clear the president wanted the mural to be about the history of Independence and the western movement across the Oregon and Santa Fe trails.
“It was at this moment”, Benton recalled, “that the theme of the Truman Library mural was born.”
In planning his mural, Benton traveled throughout the spring of 1959 to Oklahoma, Colorado and Nebraska. He made dozens of sketches to make sure all the historical details in his mural would be correct.
Once work began in 1960, Benton was a daily presence at the library for nearly six months. He transformed the lobby wall into a dramatic and colorful scene depicting native Americans and pioneers interacting across a panoramic landscape. At one point early in the process, Mr. Truman climbed the scaffold himself to paint a few brush strokes of blue sky – under Benton’s close supervision.
Page 2 of 2 - Benton found Truman to be an excellent patron, one who was interested and supportive, while keeping his opinions to himself.
Finally, a grand dedication ceremony took place on April 15 (Benton’s 72nd birthday). During the festivities Truman exclaimed that Benton was “the best muralist in the country.” Some believe “Independence and the Opening of the West” is the best of Benton’s murals. One art historian described it as Benton’s “greatest tour de force in the field of historical painting: Literally thousands of objects, each carefully researched, are organized into a flowing, organized composition.”
With support from Independence philanthropists Ken and Cindy McClain, the Truman Library will open a major exhibition on Truman, Benton and the Mural on March 8, 2013.
Michael Devine is director of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence.