‘Benton’s Martha’s Vineyard’

You’ll find Thomas Hart Benton’s Island experiences in the M.V. Museum’s new exhibit. 

“When the old boys talked, you didn’t interrupt them … You listened …”

This quote was attributed to Thomas Hart Benton as a description of how he came to know “Island folks,” as he called them, “learned to know what they and the Island stood for.” Arriving on the Vineyard for the first time in 1920, Benton claimed that the Island and the Chilmark landscape and people he came to know, gave him the basis for the work that would consume him throughout his life.

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s Anna Barber has curated a gem of an exhibition that runs through August 11, Benton’s Martha’s Vineyard, in three rooms upstairs in their newly opened building, the former Marine Hospital in Vineyard Haven. Although small, the exhibition gives a sense of Benton’s development and process as an artist over his 50 years of Island summers. It is also a chronicle of Island history. If you are a Benton enthusiast, you will be thrilled. If you are not, there is still much to learn and appreciate.

My favorite room was the first, a collection of small paintings, drawings, photographs, and two display cases, one with some of Benton’s pottery, the other with his paint box, vials of ground colors, squeezed paint tubes, and a bunch of brushes stuck in a French Market coffee can, much the sort of “stuff” any artist would have around his studio. There was a little watercolor sketch of Benton that Stan Murphy did, with color notes in the margin, torn from Murphy’s sketchbook. They were friends and painters with similar interests, painting the year-round living and working residents of Martha’s Vineyard in their own landscape. Alfred Eisenstadt was represented there too, in a cartoon and an exacting pencil portrait by Benton, and in photographs by Eisenstadt of Benton and his family. There were several of Benton’s lithographs and small drawings.

But the highlight for me was a study for “Flight of the Thielens.” It is 5 1/2 x 7 inches, hung in the center of the wall across from the door where one enters the room. It is a powerful painting that captures one’s attention and is well worth the exploration.

Niki Patton sent me a description of the scene depicted in the painting. Her ex-husband was a stepson of Benedict Thielen. The story is thrilling, an incident during the 1938 hurricane that hit the Vineyard. Here it is in NIki’s words:

“The Thielens refers to Benedict Thielen and Virginia Berresford. The house pictured in the painting washed off Stonewall Beach in the storm, floated across the pond and landed at the base of the down-Island side of Stonewall Pond across the way. Bernetta Parker — the owner of the land — took pity on the Thielens … and sold them the land where it landed. It was brought up the hill by a horse team and ‘anchored’ in place at the top — giving the house its name of ‘Anchor Hill.’ I summered there for 20 years (odd to see it being jostled around on the waves in the painting and yet be sturdy enough to have survived and lived in.) As you most likely know Josephine Clarke, the maid, drowned in the pond in the storm. Ben Thielen was distraught about it as he was holding her hand and lost grip — it’s what gives rise to that evocative quote on the caption. She was the only fatality on the Island. What is often not said is that the cat traveled the way through the storm and over the pond — the whole time in the attic — and survived. I believe his name was Finn.”

Now you will know the details of the story when you see that dramatic painting. It is a sight that is hard to imagine. Or to forget. All I could think of was that there was no warning in those days. People were caught unprepared, as the Thielens and their maid were swept out into that roiling, ghastly yellow water with the waves and the sky pressing down on them. The Bentons saw what was happening and, as the Thielens made it to shore, brought them into their home to wait out the rest of the storm.

I found it one of the most painterly in execution. It certainly held all the drama of a good story, as so many of Benton’s paintings do. But there were also areas of attention to the laying of painted edges next to one another, the highlighted foam and mixes of color in the water, brush marks left unsmoothed.

The next room held the famous portraits that Benton and Denys Wortman painted of each other in 1953. Both are clearly as representative of each artist as they are of the artist/subject being depicted. 

Benton’s portrait of Wortman is cool in color and in the measured light that highlights Wortman’s face and his hands drawing a sketch of Benton at his studio table. Drawings on the wall to his right, paintings stacked neatly, the drafting table uncluttered, Denys Wortman in a clean shirt. Benton’s painting is a polished, considered work of art.

Wortman’s painting is more of a cartoonist’s vision, which is what he was. Benton’s tee shirt is ripped and paint-smeared. His studio is a mess. But energy abounds, almost pinging off the artist in his intensity, in the handful of brushes at the ready, colors mixed on a tray. Wortman’s portrait as shown in progress on Benton’s easel is cartoonish too. It’s Wortman’s image of a portrait of himself, rather than the carefully planned and executed Benton work. I love the softened objects making a still life on a counter behind Benton, and the way Wortman brushed such interesting mixed grays into the background wall.

The main room at the end of the hall held a group of paintings, mostly oils, that Benton did here from the 1920s into the 1970s. Paintings of neighbors, still life compositions, and landscapes of undulating forms, they present a compilation of what the artist accomplished during his long career. It certainly gives a sense of the life in and of Chilmark at a point in time: two men cutting wood with a double-handled saw, loading hay into a wagon, the Chilmark church and rolling hills in a more open, treeless landscape. Art can show a moment in time. Trees have grown up into former pasture land, obscuring views that were once enjoyed and taken for granted. Low, mounded shrubs lined curving paths, and waves lapped gently or violently against a beach or high clay cliffs. Vines twisted into and around everything. Farmers and fishermen, their wives and children, grew up, and old, died. Benton’s art is a diary of our Island as it was through his eyes, and how he saw it as it changed.

Two paintings offer a glimpse into the life of Benton’s daughter, Jessie. He painted a painting especially for her on every birthday. They reflected her particular interests every year, of her growing from a child chasing butterflies to a poised young woman seated with her guitar, a view of the musician she was. Interestingly, I read in a 2004 article in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine by Sam Low, that Jessie Benton thought her father’s paintings looked like music. “The motion of them is musical. They are twisting — they are always moving, moving, moving.”

“After the Storm,” painted in 1952, is a striking painting of a group of seamen being rescued. Again, there are swirling seas and ominous clouds as a ship lists almost over, its crew leaping to safety towards a group of dark figures on shore swinging ropes to pull them in.

There are two small paintings by Benton’s student at the Art Students League, Jackson Pollock. Pollock visited the Vineyard as a guest of the Bentons and remained close to the family until his death in 1956. They are nothing special and give no hint of what Pollock is to become. Some have speculated that Pollock was deeply influenced by Benton’s work and structured his large drip paintings in ways that mirror Benton’s design principles. That seems opposed to everything I know about Pollock’s work. Mostly they are interesting because of who painted them and in what circumstances, then in reference to what became Pollock’s contribution to the abstract expressionist movement.

Going downstairs after seeing the exhibition, I ran into Sandy Pratt, now head docent at the museum. We spoke about her appreciation for Benton’s work. “The primitive aspect of it, the colors and the movement, has always appealed to me. They speak to the Island that I remember when I first moved here in the 1960s. That was after his time, but much still remained.” 

Sandy took Linda Hearn, who accompanied me to the museum on that first visit, and me to see Being Benton, an art project by Edgartown fifth grade students and their art teacher, Nicole Shank. Using Benton’s portrait of Josie West as inspiration, they created their own self-portraits, which were fabulous. What talented kids.

If you haven’t been to the new museum yet, go. It is beautiful. Sandy showed Linda and me some of the permanent collection that included the Portrait of Josie West. We also saw some old milk bottles and information about dairy farming on the Vineyard. Linda’s grandfather, Frank Norton, owned Buttonwood Farm and was part of the co-operative dairy on the Island in the 1950s.

I have been several times since and have seen the Benton exhibition over and over again. Having read and studied about him for this article, I have come to appreciate his work and his place more over time. Many of the paintings are on loan from private collections, so this may be your only opportunity to see and examine them. The exhibition will remain through August 11.