It Freed His Heart

It wasn’t until Thomas Hart Benton came to the Island in 1920 that he found himself, and the painting style for which he would become famous.

I first met Tom Benton when 
he came to spend the night with my parents. My initial impression was of a sturdy, rumpled man with an expressive face who moved about with authority, trailed by the aroma of cigars.

The next morning, after my parents and Benton 
had spent a long, somewhat bawdy evening together, I went into my bedroom where Benton had slept. 
I found a Latin dictionary on the bedside table. I was struggling with Latin at the time and I couldn’t imagine an adult – a famous artist to boot – subjecting himself to such torture. But Tom Benton was not your typical adult. His quest for learning continued all his life.
Born in the spring of 1889, Benton began 
painting when he was very young. He completed his first self-portrait when he was sixteen. He studied in Chicago and then in Paris from 1907 to 1911. Like many young artists, he imitated the style of the day – cubism and impressionism – but he was unsatisfied. He wanted to develop his own compositional structure and style. His own statement. “Because of my 
revolt against the patterns of the schools,” he would write later in his autobiography, “I spent fifteen 
years on my beam-end, rocked by every wave that came along. I floundered without a compass in every direction.” It wasn’t until 1920, after he began to spend summers on Martha’s Vineyard, insulated 
from prevailing artistic fashion and rarified art criticism, that Benton began to find himself.
The rhythms of the landscape in Chilmark, 
deposited by mile-high glaciers and sculpted by nature for ten thousand years, inspired Tom Benton in ways that the streets of New York, Chicago, and Paris never did. As his Island biographer, Polly Burroughs, put it: “. . . 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.”

In his first summers on the Vineyard, Benton completed, among other paintings, Beetlebung Corner  (1922), The Cliffs (1921), and Waves (1920). These were landscapes, devoid of human beings, and they explored his passion for color and composition, as he responded to the natural landforms all around him. But while his technique and style matured, Benton felt something was missing. Still preoccupied by 
artistic conventions, he had yet to strike off in a new and original direction. In his autobiography, Benton wrote that the evolution of his art moved through three stages:
“The first is devoted to a search for method. 
In the second phase the method is developed and its formal and representational potentialities are explored. In the third, the developed method is applied to the expression of those human meanings that the artist’s life provides. The first two phases are primarily technical, the last largely communicative.” In the beginning, it was as if the right side of his brain – the intellectual, logical side – was engaged, but the left side – the emotional and instinctual – was not. These two aspects of his art finally joined on the Vineyard to spark a complete and full artistic realization, as well as a more complete and full human being.
In the summer of 1922, Tom’s wife Rita led him down South Road and into the home of Sabrina and George West, deaf-mutes who were descended from
a population of other deaf-mutes that had lived for generations in Chilmark and West Tisbury. Rita was intrigued by the way these two up-Island towns had evolved a unique sign language in which deaf and hearing alike communicated. Tom sketched a portrait of George and Sabrina sitting down to dinner, which became one of his most famous paintings, The Lord 
Is My Shepherd, now at the Whitney Museum in New York. In the simple ritual of dining together, Benton captured the Wests’ deep mutual regard, and he
featured George’s large hands – expressive of his life as a farmer. Tom Benton was beginning to find “the human meanings” that would distinguish his art. As he himself put it: “. . . it took me a hell of a long time to figure out that great art through history had been culturally inspired and that it got its meanings from the way people lived, and had not emerged from the Bohemia of Paris or any other city. . . . The American scene became my subject and I found it first here on the Island.” The Lord Is My Shepherd is the first painting in a style called regionalist that Benton would make famous.
“I just think that it was suddenly the freedom 
of being in a place where there were no critics, no pressure, no anything, and it freed his heart,” says his daughter Jessie Benton. “He was able to paint without feeling that he would be criticized, perhaps. It was also a place where he could be personal. He could paint personal pictures. He did not have to paint enormous murals representing historical ideas – he could paint his children, he could paint the flowers, he could paint the stone walls, he could paint Henry Look and his cows. He says himself that being on the Vineyard freed something up inside of him that focused his whole being. I think he took himself on and it was no longer an embarrassment or a maybe.”

Benton was inspired by the human stories 
all around him. “When the old boys talked, you 
didn’t interrupt them,” Benton wrote of this time 
on the Island. “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.”
The up-Island world that Benton and his family inhabited was peopled not only by native Vineyarders, but also by a freewheeling community of artists and intellectuals. It was a place where folks swam naked, drank freely, and discussed what was happening in the world. “One of Franklin Roosevelt’s advisors lived right here in Menemsha,” says Jessie Benton. “Leo Huberman was a famous socialist writer and reformer. They would come to our house and they would all talk. Daddy and Jimmy Cagney used to fight about politics. He was a Republican, Cagney – so they used to fight about politics, but that did not mean they could not dance and drink and have dinner together. The head of the American Communist Party was 
one of our close neighbors. A friend of Daddy’s. A friend of everybody’s. It was a personal place. They 
all communicated with each other. It was a race of people that just aren’t here anymore. They were all individuals. They had contributed a great deal to 
society – to the ideas of the new world. They had fought Hitler. They were amazing people.”

In 1938, the Great New England Hurricane 
raked the Island, destroying the fishing village of Menemsha, and Benton captured a terrible moment in his painting The Flight of the Thielens, whose 
cottage on South Beach was swept away. He painted Henry Look unhitching his horse, farmers haying in July, and Island folk singer Gale Huntington teaching his daughter to play guitar.
“The Huntingtons were incredible musicians,” Jessie Benton remembers. “They were local people who lived in Chilmark. Gale was a collector of all the whaling songs and songs that had to do with this area. He was a musicologist.” So was Tom. He 
invented a system of annotating harmonica music 
that is still used today, and he was a friend of Alan Lomax, the famous collector of American folk music. On many evenings, after setting down his paintbrushes, Tom joined Jessie and T.P. to play music. In 1941, Decca released a record entitled Saturday Night at Tom Benton’s. Jessie would become a noted folk singer in her own right.
According to Jessie, music was vital to her father’s art. “Look at his paintings,” she says. “To me they look like music. The motion of them is musical. They are twisting – they are always moving, moving, moving. I have always seen so much music in my father’s paintings. He made paintings that depict folk songs, for instance, that really do look like the song itself. If you look at his Nashville mural, it is just like notes – the feeling of music, the motion of music. He was not a great musician, and I always said that was lucky or he would have been a musician and not a painter. He had a lousy sense of timing. He used to drive me and my brother crazy. But there’s nothing that you can do – you have to follow your father, you know.”
Benton was extremely well-disciplined. “He took his art as a job,” Jessie recalls. “He was not
mystical. He was a very vibrant intellectual whose 
job, from nine to five every day, was painting pictures. That’s the way he looked at it. He worked very hard and he did a lot of research. Everything he did was absolutely perfect. If he painted a mural that included horses, the harnesses were going to be perfect. Everything was absolutely researched. The kind of mules they used in the St. Lawrence River in 1879, what the Seminole Indians wore. He was a perfectionist. He took good care of things.” Benton painted life 
in America as he saw it. He traveled the country. 
He went by canoes and on horseback, he hung out 
in bars, and he put his finger on the pulse of America. He pictured life in the raw – dance halls and cowboys, business tycoons, and poverty-stricken farmers. His work was featured in prestigious exhibits. He painted many murals and illustrated a limited edition of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. On December 24, 1934, he appeared on the cover of Time. Benton’s fame took hold across America.
It was in 1953 that my father, Sandy Low, first met Tom Benton through their mutual friend, Denys Wortman. My father was an artist, but he was also the director of the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut. He was nervous about meeting Tom because Benton held museums in low esteem. “I would rather exhibit my pictures in whorehouses and saloons, where normal people can see them,” Benton once said. The occasion for Dad’s visit was to see a portrait of Denys Wortman that Benton was painting. To ease the burden on Denys while he posed, Benton had arranged for an easel to be brought in, which stimulated Wortman – a fine artist in his own right – to paint a portrait of him. Wortman’s portrait of Benton was so stunning that my father decided to acquire the two portraits for his museum.
“This was my first visit to Benton’s summer studio and home in the picturesque up-Island township of Chilmark, overlooking beautiful Menemsha Pond and Vineyard Sound,” my father wrote of the encounter. “I had long known of his vitriolic attitude toward museums and especially museum directors, the former for their stuffiness and apparent hostility toward the public at large, and the latter for their 
effete and fashionable art interests and precious mannerisms. He had crossed horns many times with well-known museum officials from all over the country, so I was prepared to meet a formidable person, and I was not disappointed. But Tom Benton at work and at peace with the world on Martha’s Vineyard Island was not the aggressive and pugnacious firebrand that I had read and heard about over the years. Why? For one thing, I think the Island in late summer bestows 
a benevolent peace on the soul of any man, woman
or child so fortunate as to come under its spell. Secondly, he was completely immersed in a labor of love, [and] everything had turned out satisfactorily. . . .”
Benton and my father hit it off immediately and in the later years of their friendship Benton would
often visit our home on the Vineyard. “Your father,” I remember Benton telling me, “is the damnedest museum director I have ever known. For one thing, he’s an artist himself. He’s also a person who knows about art and art history. He’s got a good eye. And he likes bourbon almost as much as I do.”
The art world is notoriously fickle. In 1953, Benton’s art was out of vogue. “They took his paintings off the walls of just about every museum in the country,” Jessie remembers. “Daddy was no longer fashionable. Representational art – what they considered American representational regional art – was no longer popular and they literally got rid of it.” One of the museums that was ridding itself of Tom’s paintings was the Whitney 
in New York. Up for grabs was a series of five murals called The Arts of Life 
in America. Benton was, my father thought, “one of the truly great American artists of this century,” and he decided to acquire these murals. The asking price was $500, which the
museum gladly paid, and they are now the centerpiece of an entire wing, along with all of Benton’s lithographs, which he donated to the museum. As my father predicted, the pendulum of artistic taste swung back in Benton’s direction. In 1989, an eighty-five- painting retrospective of Benton’s work opened in Kansas City and went on to museums in Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles. The centerpiece of the show, on loan from the New Britain Museum of American Art, was The Arts of Life in America murals. The Whitney hosted the show in New York. Today, the murals hang once again on the Whitney’s walls in a temporary exhibit – through January 2, 2005 – hailed as “a landmark homecoming.” Or, as The New York Times called the sale to my father’s museum, “a landmark blunder.” The value of 
the paintings, according to the story, would now be a minimum of $10 
million. Tom Benton’s place among the best American artists, it seems, is finally secure.
Looking back on the Vineyard world in which my father and Tom Benton came of age, it seems a magic place. It was a time before the deluge of the glitterati and the fabulously wealthy – a time when Martha’s 
Vineyard seemed truly remote. The Bentons were poor, but that did not matter to the hard-working folks who inhabited the Island. “They liked him,” Jessie remembers. “He was
appreciated for being an artist even though he was kind of different. In those days money had nothing to do with it. Your standing came from who you were and what you did and what kind of a person you were. It was a place where you can make a drawing of old Ernest Flanders and he will give you a couple of lobsters. My mother was a fabulous bread maker and she would trade with the locals for whatever they needed. That was the way that we lived here. Everybody knew everybody. I could walk from house to house. It is hard for anyone today to imagine what that world was like. There was a feeling of camaraderie. We were all safe with one another 
because we were all on the Vineyard. It did not have anything to do with background or money or who you were or how you were raised. It was as if the Vineyard itself was your calling card. It was very beautiful.”