Thomas Hart Benton began his career as a modernist, creating synchromist abstractions that brought him recognition in vanguard art circles of the 1910s. (Studies of Benton’s life and career include Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton: Discoveries and Interpretations [Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2015], and by the same author, Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989].) However, during the early 1920s Benton changed his artistic direction and his philosophy. Feeling that realistic depictions of American life were the most effective means by which painters could create accessible art and a pictorial tradition that expressed national values, he abandoned Modernism, with its international roots. Turning his attention to the American Scene, he went on to create powerful regionalist paintings as well as historical murals, portraits, and still lifes. A populist who was controversial and outspoken yet highly influential, the Missouri-born painter remained a staunch defender of his aesthetic credo long after abstraction had gained a foothold in the art world.
As part of the triumvirate of regionalists that included Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, Benton focused his attention on images of everyday people and places that he encountered during his travels across the country. His name is typically associated with portrayals of the nation’s heartland; however, the artist’s vision of American life extended well beyond the towns and farmlands of the Midwest. Benton was also inspired by visits to the South and the West, and even by a lengthy period of residency in New York City. Benton’s iconography is also connected with Martha’s Vineyard, a small island located in the Atlantic Ocean about five miles from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It was there, as Benton later recalled, that he first embarked on his “intimate study of the American environment and its people” (Thomas Hart Benton, An Artist in America [New York: Robert M. McBride & Co., 1937], p. 63.)
Seeking a refuge from the heat and lassitude of Manhattan––as well from the intense competition of the art world––Benton made his first visit to Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1920, accompanied by his girlfriend, Rita Piacenza (who he married in 1922), and their friends Thomas Craven, then an up-and-coming art critic, and Lillian Hofmann, a teacher from the Bronx. Remote and sparsely populated by hard-working Yankee farmers and fisherman, the Vineyard––not yet a vacation resort for the wealthy––was the perfect place for an impoverished painter to regroup in the midst of a creative slump. Living was cheap and the conditions decidedly rustic: following their arrival in the town of Chilmark, on the southwestern shore of the island, Benton and Craven set up house in a primitive barn owned by a local widow, Mrs. Ella Brug, while Rita and Lillian occupied a tiny bungalow devoid of electricity and plumbing. (Lillian found the conditions so primitive that she headed back to New York two days after the group’s arrival.) With little money for food, the group lived off the land, gathering grapes, berries, mussels, and clams, while spending the rest of their time exploring the island’s wind-swept beaches, expansive farmlands, and winding sheep-paths.
On his second trip to Martha’s Vineyard in 1921, Benton embarked on a close examination of his milieu, studying the islanders, the light and colors of the sea and sky, and the distinctive character of the topography. It was during this visit that he discovered the peculiar “Island rhythms” that would play a key role in his art for the remainder of his career. Indeed, as his friend and neighbor Polly Burroughs observed, “the beautiful, undulating gray stone walls snaking over the hills and reaching down to the sea ... the swirling gray cliffs ... and 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." Newly energized, Benton took up his brush and began painting At this point, still unsure as to the direction his art would take, he wavered between abstraction and realism, as apparent in early Vineyard landscapes and figural works such as The Cliffs (1921; The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.), Launching the Boat (1921; The William Benton Museum of Art, Storrs, Connecticut), and The People of Chilmark (1921; The Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.).
Benton found Martha’s Vineyard so appealing that he returned there every summer for the rest of his life, living in rented quarters until 1928, when he purchased a three-room cottage and barn in Chilmark that afforded him excellent views of Vineyard Sound and Menemsha Pond. By now, Benton had abandoned non-representational painting in favor of a realist approach characterized by boldly simplified forms, undulating contours, and precise brushwork, as apparent in The Lord is My Shepherd (1926; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), a double portrait of island deaf mutes George and Sabrina West. Needless to say, the down-to-earth people, the scenery, and the slow pace of life on the Vineyard were vital in terms of his artistic maturation. As he explained so vividly: "Martha’s Vineyard had a profound effect on me. The relaxing sea air, the hot sand on the beaches where we loafed naked, the great and continuous drone of the surf, broke down most of the tenseness which life in the cities had given me. It separated me from the Bohemias of art and put a physical sanity into my life for four months of the year. Providing me with a homely subject matter and a great quiet for reflection…. It freed my art from the dominance of narrow urban conceptions and put me in a psychological condition to face America" (Benton, An Artist in America, p. 63).