Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)

Born in Neosho, Missouri, in 1889, Thomas Hart Benton was the son of Congressman Colonel Maecenas Eason Benton and Elizabeth Wise, and the great-nephew and namesake of the celebrated U.S. Senator from Missouri. From 1896 to 1904, the family lived in Washington, DC, where his father represented Missouri in the United States Congress. In his youth, Benton was exposed to art during school visits to the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Library of Congress. He received his first official art instruction at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he enrolled in 1907. A year later, he traveled to Paris, where he attended the Académies Julian and Colarossi and studied the art of the Old Masters at the Louvre.  He also began frequenting avant-garde galleries, where he was drawn to the works of the French artists Cézanne, Matisse, Braque, and Delaunay. In addition, he was compelled by the art of his friend and fellow American, the Synchromist artist Stanton MacDonald-Wright. By the time of his return to Missouri in 1911, he was a fervent Modernist, painting in the Synchromist style, a conception of art in which form was derived from a play of color.

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The artist’s early interest in European abstraction declined after he served in the Navy during World War I. As he later reminisced: “I wallowed in every cockeyed ism that came along.” [1] Desirous of “returning painting to its historic representational purpose and…making it represent matter drawn from American life,” he focused on the national scene. [2] He went on to depict subjects drawn from contemporary material, including incidents from popular history and simple, everyday scenes, rendered in a robust realist style, influenced by his study of Baroque and Mannerist paintings. The artist was at the height of his fame during the 1930s, when both his canvases and murals led to his prominence as part of a triumvirate of the leading Midwestern Regionalists, including John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood.

Benton’s “America” was broad and wide-ranging, consisting of paintings inspired by the people and scenery of Missouri, by his experiences in New York City, and by his numerous trips to the South. His iconography is also intimately linked with Martha’s Vineyard, which he first visited in 1920 at the invitation of his companion, Rita Piacenza, whom he would marry two years later. At that time, the island, located five miles off the east coast of Cape Cod, was sparsely populated and most of the residents were either farmers or descendants of its earliest settlers. The landscape was reminiscent of the country life Benton had known as a child, and, aware that he was feeling tired and emotionally distraught, Rita sensed that the island’s rural ambiance would revive his sagging morale. She felt that spending time there would restore his peace of mind and allow him a pleasant respite from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.

Rita’s hunches proved to be correct. Benton was overjoyed with Martha’s Vineyard, especially Chilmark, a remote fishing and farming village set in hilly terrain on the western fringe of the island that boasted isolated beaches and a tiny port known as Menemsha. Living conditions were quite rudimentary: there was no electricity, few telephones, and no modern plumbing. However, these inconveniences were offset by the area’s unspoiled beauty in the form of wind-swept beaches, tidal ponds, quiet moors, old farmhouses nestled in the hills, and coves and meadows covered with wildflowers, berry patches, and pine trees. In fact, the Vineyard became Benton’s refuge. Referring to it as representing “an immense contrast to my life in New York,” he returned there every summer for the remainder of his life, purchasing property in Chilmark in 1927. [3]  In his autobiography, An Artist in America, he stated:  “It was in Martha’s Vineyard that I really began to mature my painting—to get a grip on my emerging style and way of doing things.” [4] He further recalled: “There is no place quite like it anywhere…It separated me from the Bohemias of art and put a physical sanity into my life for four months of the year.” [5] Other artists and intellectuals felt similarly. Among those to spend time on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1920s and 30s were Boardman Robinson, Leopold and David Mannes (founders of the Mannes School of Music) and Roger Baldwin (founder of the American Civil Liberties Union).

Throughout the course of his career—and especially during the first half of the 1920s—Benton spent much of his time depicting the people and scenery of Martha’s Vineyard. Indeed, while most of the island’s summer visitors were relaxing, the artist set a vigorous pace, typically rising at five o’clock in the morning, eating nothing until eight or nine. He said he could work better before breakfast than at any other time of day. This did not stop him from working all day and every day. He would take an hour off at the end of the day for a swim in the ocean, his only recreation when he was working steadily which was the general rule. [6]

In addition to the hardworking farmers and fishing folk of Chilmark, in 1960-61, Benton also portrayed one of the island’s most popular pastimes: bicycling on its winding roads that curve in many directions around the coast and waterways. Even today, this activity is a favorite in the Vineyard. As noted in Frommer’s guide: “The up-island roads leading to West Tisbury, Chilmark, Menemsha, and Aquinnah are a cyclist's paradise, with sprawling, unspoiled pastureland, old farmhouses, and brilliant sea views reminiscent of Ireland's countryside. But the terrain is often hilly, and the roads are narrow and a little rough around the edges.” [7]  

References: Falk, Who Was Who in American Art, 1999; Craven, Thomas, Thomas Hart Benton (New York: Associated American Artists, 1939); Benton, Thomas Hart, An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography (Lawrence, KS: 1969); Burroughs, Polly, Thomas Hart Benton: A Portrait (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1981); Benton, Thomas Hart, An Artist in America (New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1937); Adams, Henry, Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original (New York: Knopf, 1989).

[1] Thomas Hart Benton quoted in Thomas Craven, Thomas Hart Benton (New York: Associated American Artists, 1939), p. 11.

[2] Thomas Hart Benton, An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography (Lawrence, Kansas, 1969), p. 154.

[3] Polly Burroughs, interview with Thomas Hart Benton, summer of 1972, 1973 or 1974, at Gay Head, Massachusetts, quoted in Polly Burroughs, Thomas Hart Benton: A Portrait (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1981), p. 7. 

[4] Thomas Hart Benton, An Artist in America (New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1937), p. 62.

[5] Benton, An Artist in America, 63.

[6] Gilberta Goodwin, quoted in Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original (New York: Knopf, 1989), p. 103.

[7], retrieved September 20, 2013.

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