Thomas Hart Benton at Martha’s Vineyard

Thomas Hart Benton, The Lord is My Shepherd

Benton made his first trip to Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1920. His wife Rita invited Benton to join her, believing the country atmosphere would have a soothing effect. In Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original, Henry Adams writes: “He returned every summer to the island, and for the first half of the 1920s, Martha’s Vineyard provided the subject matter for nearly all of his major paintings.”

The local population and the lush landscape provided endless subject matter for Benton.  Benton was particularly captivated by the island’s “old-timers”.”When the old boys talked, you didn’t interrupt them,” Benton wrote.  “You let your own concerns go and listened. You learned things about people who had been on whaling ships and had swum miles at sea holding onto their boots, who had walked across miles of Arctic ice and had their teeth pulled by the village blacksmith with all the local heavyweights sitting on their arms and legs. Listening, you shared not only the adventures, but the spirits of the talkers. Keeping your mouth shut, you came to know the Island folks and what they and the island stood for. You got in touch with what was real.”

Frankie, a destitute old woman; Frank Flanders, a devoted card player; and Billy Benson, a sheep-stealing old rascal, were all captured in early portraits by Benton.  His most famous portrait from the Vineyard, The Lord is my Shepherd, shows George and Sabrina West, a deaf couple whom Rita introduced to Benton in 1922.  The couple interested Benton so much that he continued work on the painting for four years, finishing it in 1926.

“I could, on hind sight, say that I saw something in these deaf mutes from an artist’s point of view that one didn’t see in a normal person,” Benton said.

About the painting Adams writes: “Though most viewers surely don’t realize the Wests were both deaf, the painting conveys a sober mood of hard work and eternal silence.”  The painting is now in the collection of the Whitney Museum.

Thomas Hart Benton, White Calf

Other island families featured prominently in Benton’s work.  The Looks were frequent subjects in the 40s. Mabel, the youngest member of the family, posed for Mabel and the Goat, a painting that hung over Benton’s desk at the Vineyard.  Henry Look was the subject of White Calf, a 1945 lithograph.  About the print Benton writes: “Henry had a good deal selling his milk until some prying summer person found him straining it in his snot-filled handkerchief.  Trade with Henry dropped off after that.”

 The land was as inspiring to Benton as the people.  In Polly Burrough’s biography of the artist, she writes: “…the beautiful undulating grey stone walls snaking over the hills and reaching down to touch the sea; the bright green marsh grasses skirting the tidal ponds that swayed in the prevailing southwest winds; the contorted twisted vines of the trumpet vine, and the gnarled trunks of the scrub oak inspired him in a manner he hadn’t experienced before.”

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.)

Thomas Hart Benton, Menemsha

Martha’s Vineyard remained a source of inspiration for over 50 years. Benton spent his last summer at the Vineyard in 1974, just months before he died.  Work from his time there remains popular with collectors.  Among the top lots in Swann Galleries’ June 2011 auction was a Vineyard landscape, c. 1922-24. The oil on paper drew bids from across the country, including bids from collectors in Martha’s Vineyard, and sold for $60,000, doubling the low estimate.

Image List:
1. The Lord is My Shepherd
1926, tempera on canvas
33 1/4 × 27 3/8 inches
Collection of the Whitney Museum of Art

2. White Calf
1945, Lithograph
10 3/4 x 13 1/4 inches
Catalogue: Fath 67

3. Landscape, Martha’s Vineyard
c. 1920-29, oil on paper
8 1/2 x 11 inches

One Response to “Thomas Hart Benton at Martha’s Vineyard”
Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] while back, we wrote about the enormous influence that Martha’s Vineyard had on Benton. (Read the post.)  Today, we came across a video from educator Laura Ridloff discussing The Lord is My Shepherd, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: