Looking back at our homeschool field trips, most of them have been for history/social studies purposes. A few have been science/geology related, and some are just for fun. Other than a trip to the art museum, this may be the only art related field trip we’ve taken and I’ll be honest, it was a small portion of a larger, civics-related trip to the Missouri Capitol. Notice, that was with an “o” not and “a” so I’m referring to the actual building. The House Lounge used to be a place for legislators and the committees on which they served to meet. In 1935, Thomas Hart Benton (a native Missourian and one of the best known artists of the Regionalism movements) was commissioned to decorate the lounge with a mural, the subject being “A Social History of the State of Missouri.” Benton was given complete freedom in interpreting and executing the theme.
No one can accuse Benton of not being thorough…while he sketched ideas to cover the more than 1400 square feet of wall space, he consulted a six-volume history of Missouri. The outer wall was filled with windows and he opted to paint cornstalks and power lines in the spaces between them. The other walls would be covered with scenes of Missouri’s history, legends, and folklore. Visitors were allowed in the room while Benton worked and it someone with a particularly interesting face walked in, the artist might stop to sketch a portrait and that face would end up on the wall somewhere.
When the room was revealed in 1937, the legislators were in an uproar. Some were offended by the content (Jesse James, the outlaw was given a prominent spot over the doors), others by the bright colors and oversized figures. One man was even worried that the artist had gone way over budget buying eggs to use in the paint base (Benton had receipts to prove he’d only spent about $10). There were cries to install curtains or just whitewash over the whole mess, but the furor died down and the House Lounge is one of the highlights of Capitol tours these days. Here are some of the highlights of the panels.
Huckleberry Finn and the slave Jim were fictionalized characters of the famous Missouri author Mark Twain. The steamboat in the background has been christened Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain’s real name.
Benton’s tribute to the city of St. Louis. It’s probably best known as the home of Anheuser-Busch (notice the man drinking, the beer being put into kegs and the bar glass. The artist did his homework though, St. Louis and surrounding communities had a lot of shoe factories (in fact, my grandparents used to work in one). The St. Louis City Museum is build in a former shoe factory and the giant 10 story slide is how they used to move product from floor to floor. In the background is coal.
Kansas City is portrayed with its meat processors (ever hear of a Kansas City steak?). In the foreground, a Bunsen burner reminds viewers of the advancement in chemical chemical research from the western side of the state. This is one of the upsetting segments of the mural. The man with his back turned is Tom Pendergast, a political boss from KC who was later convicted of tax evasion. The site of his meeting includes scantily clad show girls in the background. Mr. Pendergast still held a lot of political clout when the mural was unveiled. Probably some of the men he helped elect had their feet held to the fire to whitewash over this image.
Another disturbing, but historically accurate scene deals with the way Mormons were treated in the state. Their home is being burned and a man is being tarred and feathered. In 1838, Gov. Lilburn Boggs signed an order to drive the Mormons from the state or exterminate them. It wasn’t rescinded until 1976.
The real pictures are so large, I’m not sure how well the details will appear in this post. Although the focus of this scene is the white man trading whiskey for furs (another unpopular, but true scene), in the background is a frontier cabin. Benton correctly painted it with vertical planking just like the first French settlers built their homes.
The murals have never been modified, only cleaned and restored over the years. Touring the Missouri Capitol is free and the House Lounge is usually open (there may be a rare meeting in there from time to time). If you’re coming to Jefferson City to study Missouri history of government, please stop by and see this artistic treasure.
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