Matthew Baigell, author of Thomas Hart Benton, writes: "Beginning in 1920, Thomas Hart Benton spent the summer months on Martha's Vineyard in the Chilmark-Menemsha area, then and still today a rural expanse of softly rounded hills with spectacular views of Menemsha Pond. Clearly, Benton loved the area and, over the decades, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, painted its farms, roadways, bicycle riders, twisting, irregular shorelines, and boats adrift on the sunlit, calm waters of the Pond. Just as clearly, the artist found the setting very relaxing and created some of his most amiable and pleasant paintings there, often from a rise in the landscape where he could look down upon what can only be called a friendly landscape. Amazingly, very few of these paintings have been reproduced or discussed in Benton's own writings and in the literature about him, perhaps because they are rarely seen and are different enough from the artist's other works to be considered as examples of a unique Martha's Vineyard style. In any event, they should not be considered a mere interlude in Benton's career, but a series of works that describe a particular American landscape among the several he explored after 1940. This is an important point to acknowledge because today we should no longer isolate Benton as the country's most famous Regionalist artist. In an era when abstract art was ascendant after World War II, he was among those who maintained landscape painting as a viable subject and helped keep it in the public's visual memory.
Menemsha Pond reveals the artist thoroughly enjoying himself exploring with his brush the hills, curving shorelines, clouds in the sky, sail boats, and people at leisure or clamming. Although it is an excellent late study, he still exercised his usual tight control over its composition. In fact, it demonstrates very clearly how well Benton, although an unabashed figurative painter, understood the kind of modernist organization that derives from Cezanne and Analytical Cubism. The picture's organization which at first looks as if its forms had been randomly set down is actually a tightly conceived design, one common to all of Benton's best works. For example, a strong, central vertical axis is established by the dark tree in the foreground, the light but strongly colored rowboat just above, the dark tree in the middle distance and the dark forms in the top center. That rowboat in the center of the composition is also the crossing point of two interrupted diagonal movements that help structure the painting. From the lower right, one's eye is led from the small shack to the rowboat and on to the spit of land jutting out into the pond in the upper left. And the other diagonal movement begins with the boy in the lower left. It passes through the boat house and wharf in the left center and then on to a darkened line of green color to the right.
In addition Benton often places his forms along and within horizontal bands that often bulge upward in the center of a painting. In Menemsha, these are defined by the shorelines and the profiles of the hills that add something akin to a physical and spiritual uplift as if the landscape itself were alive and growing. This particular quality is one of Benton's great gifts as a landscapist. Diagramming Menemsha in this way makes the painting seem to be a studio exercise, yet, all of the forms seem to be free and unbound by compositional dictates, although, each appears inevitably in its proper place. Each belongs exactly where the artist placed it. As is usual, the organizational structure is coherent but not rigid, and the viewer is hardly aware of the artist's control over his composition, another quality that defines a Benton sketch or finished painting.
Benton was certainly more than a Regionalist with a particular Americanist agenda. After the politically tumultuous decade of the 1930s in which he seemingly argued with everybody and the busy war years of the early 1940s in which he even spent time on a submarine as an artist correspondent, Benton withdrew from his active role as a social observer of contemporary American customs and habits and turned his attention to the landscape. (He did, however, accept numerous mural commissions until his death in 1975.)
In the early 1940s, he developed a quasi-Surreal or magic Surreal style in which tree trunks, leaves, and flowers were portrayed in purposefully exaggerated, sharply focused close-ups in constricted spaces. On occasion, he also revisited his earlier middle-western harvest scenes. During the 1950s and 1960s, he found in the vast deserts of the west a way to open up his compositions once again. The major landscapes of this period were his various views of the Rocky Mountains and the western rivers, great open panoramas of the endless spaces and mountain ranges that spread out before him. He also painted more intimate scenes of both the quiet spaces and rushing rivers of the Ozarks where he often went on canoe trips. Each of these landscape settings called for a slightly different mode of presentation and Benton certainly obliged, but all contain his recognizable, tight organizational structure.
One detects in the Martha's Vineyard scenes a slightly different feel. He was obviously familiar with the island's topography, its plants and flowers, and so he probably did not find it necessary to describe it—examine it—with the same degree of detail one notices in the other landscapes. It is as if he did not need to confront its landscape by itemizing it but rather he allowed the scenes to channel themselves through him. All he had to do was walk out on his porch or stroll on the dirt lanes and paved roadways everyday and establish some sort of sympathetic connection to the views before him. In that sense, the Martha's Vineyard paintings are probably his most intimate works and certainly among the most agreeable he ever painted.
Gouache on paper
Thomas Hart Benton
21 1/4 by 28 1/2 in. (53.9 by 72.3 cm)
Victoria Sandwick Schmitt, Four Centuries of Sporting Art: Selections from the John L. Wehle Collection, Gallery of Sporting Art, Genessee Country Museum, Mumford, New York, 1984, p.64, illustrated in color p.65
Estate of the artist
James Graham & Sons, New York
Jack Wehle, 1980
Gift to the present owner from the above