Thomas Hart Benton at Martha’s Vineyard
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.”
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.
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.”
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.)
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.
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
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