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Surreal showstoppers

Thomas Hart Benton’s seldom-seen paintings show the nightmare of war

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Images courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri
  • Published: March 2, 2012

Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings from World War II are fascinating but difficult to experience, rather like a car crash you can’t stop looking at. First exhibited in New York in 1942, the entire series of paintings has only rarely been exhibited together since then.  

“The paintings are powerful, yet disturbing. There’s a surreal quality to them, almost like a nightmare,” says exhibit Curator Joan Stack.

To commemorate the 70th anniversary year of the paintings, the State Historical Society of Missouri will exhibit the collection and other related works in its gallery at Ellis Library from March 3 through mid-August.

The Historical Society owns the Year of Peril series, which is considered a priceless collection. Benton paintings today sell for millions of dollars.

The eight paintings were a gift from Abbott Laboratories of Chicago, which bought the collection for $20,000. Benton later donated two additional canvases with calmer war messages.

Propaganda perspective

Until recently, art historians have largely ignored Benton’s war paintings because they differ from his usual Regionalist style. When the Year of Peril exhibit opened in 1942, the series was hailed as powerful propaganda, but some critics reacted negatively to the portrayal of violence.  

These works are not the Benton style familiar to the public. A beloved Missouri painter since the 1930s, Benton (1889-1975) painted in an accessible, sculptural style, creating canvases and murals that depicted the ordinary people of rural America. 

“In his murals, the workers are the heroes. He liked the raw reality of real people. His style reaches out and connects with people,” Stack says.

Wedged among those folksy images are the seldom-seen Year of Peril paintings — completed immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor — that convey fear of an enemy invasion. Benton was trying to change minds with the paintings. Convinced that America needed to protect itself from invasion, he visualized that fear on canvas.  

“It’s hard to feel and understand the emotions of Pearl Harbor. As difficult as the 9/11 terrorism was, it wasn’t the threat of an invading army that people felt at the beginning of World War II,” Stack says.

Benton finished seven of the paintings in just four months — an amazing feat — while living in Kansas City.

Demons of fear

Benton’s paintings portray troubling images: attacks on land, at sea and in the air; Japanese and German caricatures; disembodied limbs and hands; severed heads and other horrors of war.

Even the size of the enormous canvases contributes to their attention-grabbing effect. At 7 and 8 feet wide by 5 feet tall, the largest paintings dwarfed the 5-foot 3-inch Benton.  

Exterminate, at 7-by-5, may be the showstopper. The canvas shows American soldiers in a gory battle against larger-than-life allegorical figures representing the Japanese and German armies. Benton’s message was that America must match the demons to beat the demons.

“If you see this picture, you’re never going to forget it. It’s a vision of hell that was even harder to look at in 1942. The American soldier has become a killing monster in a hellish setting,” Stack says.

Benton repeated visual elements throughout the series, such as a pervasive deep blue background color, columns of fire and a composition rhythm that encourages the eye to move from right to left. Even the settings are similar with stark, surreal landscapes of rocky forms and little vegetation, reminiscent of something Salvador Dali might paint.

Henry Adams, professor of American art at Case Western Reserve University and a Benton scholar, considers the paintings the “most unusual creations of Benton’s entire career” and his greatest popular success.

Adams estimates the New York exhibition drew 75,000 people and reproductions of the paintings reached an audience of about 55 million.

Abbott Laboratories, which commissioned the collection, later offered it to the federal government as a contribution to the national war effort. After the government rejected the gift, Abbott donated the eight paintings to the State Historical Society of Missouri in 1944.

Age-appropriate consideration

Stack predicts the Year of Peril exhibit will be particularly popular with World War II buffs.

“If you see the paintings in context of the time, they make more sense. The paintings have a surreal quality to them, and sometimes that’s the way it is for people who experience a nightmare,” Stack says.

Stack leads tours for groups, including school-age children. She says children who view the paintings tend to see the fight of good against evil with the triumph of good in the end: “In a strange sort of way, there’s an antiwar element in the paintings because Benton shows the horror of war.” 

Although the paintings offer something not found in textbooks and deal with an interesting part of history, Stack suggests parents consider the maturity of their children before taking them to the exhibit.

Invasion, at 7 feet by 4 feet, is the most disturbing painting of the series, showing soldiers attacking a farm family and holding a woman in what appears to be an impending rape.

The collection

Benton wanted the paintings to be shown and to be kept together as a series. Because the State Historical Society celebrates Benton as a Missouri artist, it was an obvious choice as a repository, Stack says.

Benton showed his pleasure with Abbott’s gift by making donations of his own. He added The Negro Soldier to the Historical Society’s collection and bequeathed Embarkation as an estate gift, bestowed after his death in 1975. 

With a career spanning seven decades, Benton’s lifetime work comprises about 1,000 full-size finished paintings; 14 murals, including those at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City; 1,500 study paintings (smaller versions of the finished pieces); and six sculptures.

Group tours are available by contacting the Historical Society at 573-882-7083.

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Last updated: March 27, 2012