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‘A fond farewell:’ Benton mural model reflects on iconic piece of history 

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The mural adorning the House Lounge has awed visitors and legislators alike for nearly a century with its depiction of the highs and lows of Missouri’s history. Harold Brown, the model for the only baby depicted in Thomas Hart Benton’s masterwork, made the trek to the statehouse this week for what he called a “fond farewell” to the piece.

“It’s been an honor,” Brown told reporters during his visit Wednesday. “I like doing this. I like to expose people to the story.”

Harold Brown
Harold Brown was the model for the only baby depicted in Thomas Hart Benton’s mural. (THE MISSOURI TIMES/CAMERON GERBER)

Brown happened upon the opportunity to go down in Missouri history at the age of 1 when Benton noticed him during a visit to his family’s home. Brown’s father, who had been appointed Missouri’s adjutant general, was being sketched for the mural when Benton noticed the child and asked his father if he could be included in the painting. (The senior Brown appeared as the foreman of the jury in the courtroom near the right corner of the mural.) 

Most of the 235 faces depicted in “The Social History of Missouri” were modeled after real people Benton met, and the artist felt the mural would be incomplete without a baby, according to Brown. His family agreed, and Brown became a part of Missouri’s history along with his father. 

Brown has the original sketches, one of which includes a hand-written note from Benton reading “with apologies to the Browns — Thomas H. Benton.” The apology was for translating the baby into his artistic style rather than depicting him exactly as he appeared, according to Brown, though the model said the sketches were ”just like a photograph.”

Those sketches were rolled up and placed in a trunk in his family home, waiting for Brown to begin using them to spread the history of Benton’s work. The sketches took on a special meaning for Brown as he grew up; his father died the year the mural was unveiled, but Benton’s work immortalized him in a sweeping tapestry of history. The pieces were framed and proudly displayed in the lounge while he told his story. 

Harold Brown presented Thomas Hart Benton’s sketches of him as a baby during his visit to the House Lounge on Aug. 25, 2021. (THE MISSOURI TIMES/CAMERON GERBER)

Brown spent much of his life in the capital city, owning the first Zesto Drive-In in Jefferson City for a time. Despite the influence of the mural and the artist over his life, Brown never went to introduce himself to Benton as an adult before the artist’s death in 1975, something he said he regretted. 

Now in his mid-80s, Brown traveled to the statehouse for the first time in five years Wednesday to see the artist’s work while he was still able to, he said.

“You think that you’re too busy to do a lot of the things that you should do until it’s too late,” Brown said. “If there’s something you want to do, you’ve got to do it while you’re able to.”

Brown was escorted to the lounge by his daughter, who said she wanted to ensure he got the chance to say goodbye to the mural that enshrined him in the state’s history. With a twinkle in his eye and a sharp sense of humor, Brown relished the opportunity to pose in front of his likeness and tell his story once more.