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The House Senate Lounge with Thomas Hart Benton’s A Social History of Missouri is open during normal business for public viewing. The room is also a stop on Missouri State Capitol Tours, where the tour guide explains elements of the mural.

JEFFERSON CITY Missouri’s State Capitol not only holds the legislative offices of the state, it also holds the crowning achievement of a famous Missouri muralist. Thomas Hart Benton’s “A Social History of Missouri” decorates the walls of the House Lounge in the Capitol. A Missouri State Senator commissioned Benton in 1935 to paint a mural depicting the evolution of everyday life in Missouri. Though he was born in the area, Benton grew up as part of an affluent political family, giving him a narrow outlook on life. Still, he didn’t let his upbringing hinder his expression of life in Missouri. Bradley Bailey, an art history professor at St. Louis University, specializes in studying American art. “A key thing about Benton are his travels through the south, the Midwest and southwest,” Bailey says. “Every summer, he would grab a bunch of notebooks, throw them in a bag and go on these hobo journeys. He would draw all the people he met. These are the people who are representative of this American scene that he’s painting, whether it’s the farmers, the hobos or the cowboys.” The mural, which took Benton six months to complete, starts with Missouri before it became a state during the 1700s then moves through various scenes of farming, industrialization and the urban areas of St. Louis and Kansas City. Mini-scenes on each wall also feature Missouri lore, such as Huck Finn and Jim floating along the Mississippi River and infamous outlaw Jesse James. Some scenes in the mural incited controversy, especially for the time period. “The most controversial thing about the Missouri mural, which shows the provincial attitude at the time, is in the front of the scene that is very near a political gathering, there’s a baby being changed,” Bailey says. “Benton painted what he saw, he included these everyday people

that he thought were the real Americans. But Benton was so into making sure that he included the broad spectrum and not just the pretty parts. That’s something that Benton will always be remembered for is this very inclusive kind of understanding of what the United States is all about.” This controversial element, though risky, is what makes Benton’s work inside the Missouri Capitol building so monumental, Bailey says. He wanted his depiction of the evolution of life in Missouri to represent the entire population. Olivia Gerling, a Kansas City resident, visited Benton’s murals. “I have to agree with the whole ‘showing the good and the bad.’ It was interesting for that time because most people probably wouldn’t have done that,” Gerling says. “One of the first things I saw when I looked at it was the lynching. I was surprised that he showed that.” Benton paints these scenes — the good and the bad — in a style that is characteristically alive. Visitors of the mural will find themselves surrounded not by painted figures, but by people, these everyday Missourians of the past, who almost appear to be moving. These people are working, building, speaking and simply living their everyday lives. Despite the amount of action Benton packs into his mural, the delicate balance he creates in his scenes keep the work from being overwhelming to the eye. The room allows visitors to either rest their feet and sit on the couches alongside the outer wall while admiring the mural as a whole, or venture up to the mural to see every detail and stroke. Either way, the free tours offered at the Capitol provide context for each scene in the mural. Julie Gerling, a Kansas City resident, appreciated how the tour guide was able to point out everything. “Even being a Missouri history teacher, if I would have gone in and sat down and looked at

it, it would have taken me a while to pick through it,” Gerling says. For Missouri natives and tourists alike, Benton’s monumental work allows travelers to learn about an important time during history through the work of a American artist. “The mural represents the entire spectrum from good to bad, from things that you’re proud of to things that you’re not so proud of, but that are an important part of the place anyway that you don’t want to forget,” Bailey says. “It’s the best of what an American mural can be.”

>>web exclusive

Read more about the mural in Kirksville, Missouri, on our website,

CENTRAL DAIRY & ARRIS’ PIZZA For a break from touring Jefferson City’s murals and the rest of the Capitol grounds, Arris’ and Central Dairy both offer proximity and quality. Arris’ Pizza, a familyowned restaurant staple in Jefferson City for more than 50 years, serves a combination of thin crust pizza and traditional Greek cuisine. After lunch or dinner, dessert at Central Dairy is a must. The dairy has a classic ice cream parlor ambiance, and with 60 flavors to choose from, everyone leaves happy.

winter 2014

25 detours

Profile for Detours Magazine

Detours Winter 2014 Issue  

Detours Magazine Winter 2014 Issue — Read stories about the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre (pg. 26) and see the beauty of Missouri’s murals (pg....

Detours Winter 2014 Issue  

Detours Magazine Winter 2014 Issue — Read stories about the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre (pg. 26) and see the beauty of Missouri’s murals (pg....

Profile for detours