It’s Big. It’s Bold. It’s Benton. (And It’s on Display in the Central Library)

The Kansas City Public Library has revived a colorful slice of downtown history.

A reproduction of Thomas Hart Benton’s 1947 mural “Achelous and Hercules” – true to the 22-foot-long, more than five-foot high dimensions of the original – now graces the first floor of the Central Library. On permanent display outside the Genevieve Guldner Gallery, it returns an image that famously adorned the old Harzfeld’s Department Store just a few blocks away.

The original tempura and oil painting was commissioned in 1946 by the family that owned Harzfeld’s, and hung prominently above the store’s first-floor elevator doors. It was donated to the Smithsonian Institution when the department store closed in 1984, and now is displayed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

The piece depicts the mythic battle between Achelous, the Greek god of rivers in the form of an angry bull, and a shirtless Hercules, who ultimately wins by tearing off one of the bull’s horns. Benton created the mural a little more than a decade after settling in Kansas City in 1935. One of the foremost American Regionalist artists of his time, he worked in a studio in his home at 3616 Belleview until his death in 1975.

“Achelous and Hercules” joins a collection of more than 200 pieces of artwork, reproductions, and artifacts on display throughout the Central Library.

“Benton lived literature, and thus the Library is an appropriate place for his work,” Library Director Crosby Kemper III says. “We plan to celebrate his presence with a party and some wine. He would have been very happy about that.”

From its opening in 2004, the downtown Central Library has boasted Kansas City’s largest public collection of books and related materials – and more. It offers programs, education and training, public access to computers and meeting rooms. And art.

The walls of the beautiful marble and bronze-appointed building display dramatic images relating to our region’s history. Among them are a number of exact reproductions of paintings, including Benton’s “Order No. 11,” two Kansas City works from the Missouri State Capitol, and now “Achelous and Hercules.”   

“At its foundation,” says Jonathan Kemper, president of the Library’s board of trustees, “the public library has always been intended as an instrument to build and strengthen our civilization. The opportunity provided by a public venue such as the Central Library for the display of art is a critically important part of this larger mission – especially bringing art that reflects our region’s rich heritage and culture to the broadest possible audience.”

The addition of “Achelous and Hercules” was made possible by funding from the Richard J. Stern Foundation for the Arts.