The Bicyclers

Thomas Hart Benton, The BicyclersEssay by Henry Adams
Author of Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original

The Bicyclers, circa 1960-61, acrylic polymer emulsion on canvas mounted on panel, 30 x 40 inches, is a well-documented example of Benton’s work that is reproduced in the monograph by Matthew Baigell, Thomas Hart Benton, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1974, plate 197. It is owned by the artist’s daughter, Jessie Benton and I have fond memories of how wonderful it looked hanging over her fireplace.

The painting shows Menemsha Pond on Martha’s Vineyard–which, despite the name, is not a fresh-water pond but an inlet of the sea, and is located just a short walk from the Benton home, which lies further up the road to the right. Benton made occasional paintings of Menemsha Pond starting in the 1920s, notably an example which belongs to Barbara Streisand—which was executed in 1945 and is reproduced in the Matthew Baigell book, plate 170. Several of Jackson Pollock’s early paintings, created when he was staying with the Bentons on Martha’s Vineyard, also show Menemsha Pond, and often include a little boat being sailed by Thomas Piacezna Benton, Thomas Hart Benton’s son.

Many of the earlier paintings of this motif by Benton show Menemsha Pond from a viewpoint looking down the hillside on which the Benton home is located, but around 1960 Benton began using a studio in Gay Head, on the shore of the pond, and around that time he began making more frequent views of Menemsha Pond from the roadway, such as this one here.

There are several studies in which Benton worked out the composition of this painting: a watercolor (9 ¾ x 13 ½ inches) in the Benton Trust; a painting in oil on panel (7 ¼ x 10 ¾ inches) in the Benton Trust; a painting in oil on panel (10 x 11 ½ inches) in a private collection¸ sold through Owen Galleries, New York, which came out of the Benton Trust; and a painting in oil on masonite (8 x 10 ½ inches) which sold at Sotheby’s on May 30, 1985. Several of these studies are quite brilliant in color, and have almost the quality of a plein-air Impressionist painting. My understanding is that just one of these paintings is dated, the one that passed through Sotheby’s, which is signed and dated 1961 at the lower left. Your large painting of this subject, which represents the culmination of all these studies, is dated circa 1960 in the Mathew Baigell book, but most likely was executed and completed in 1961, since it must have been made shortly after the study sold by Sotheby’s.

Thomas Hart Benton, The Bicyclers, study

Thomas Hart Benton, The Bicyclers graphite study

Benton also made other landscapes of Menemsha Pond around this time which loosely relate to this work, such as Menemsha Pond (circa 1960; 20 ½ x 27 inches) in the Benton Trust; and Nashquitsa Pond (6 x 8 inches; this is another name for the same body of water), which is reproduced in the Polly Burroughs book, Thomas Hart Benton: A Portrait, Garden City, New York, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1981, between pages 74 and 75. Burroughs dates this panting circa 1921, but my hunch is that it was painted about 1960. In short, this large painting of The Bicyclers represents the culmination of a long campaign of work. What’s wonderful is how Benton, rather unobtrusively, weaves the forms of the natural landscape into a memorable composition.

This is certainly one of the most lyrical of Benton’s paintings of Martha’s Vineyard and a very important example of his work.

Image list:
1.The Bicyclers
c. 1960-61, acrylic on canvas mounted on panel
30 x 40 inches

2. The Bicyclers (study)
1961, oil on masonite
8 x 10 1/2 inches
Signed and dated

3. The Bicycler
10 x 7 1/2 inches
Signed lower right “Benton”

One Response to “The Bicyclers”
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  1. […] Early works such as The Cliffs (1922) and Waves (1920) energetically depict the land devoid of any figures.  The Bicyclers captures the carefree ease of summers spent at the Vineyard, while The Flight of the Thielens captures the terror of the 1938 hurricane that raked the island.  (Henry Adams writes about The Bicyclers here.) […]

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