Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)
Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)
Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)
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Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)
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Modern Icons: Property from an Important Private Collection

Keith Farm, Chilmark

Keith Farm, Chilmark
signed and dated 'Benton '55' (lower left)
oil on canvas
21 x 29 in. (53.3 x 73.6 cm.)
Painted in 1955.
The artist.
Mr. and Mrs. E. Bradford Keith, Westwood, Massachusetts, acquired from the above.
Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton, Massachusetts, gift from the above, 1999.
Sotheby's, New York, 24 May 2006, lot 125, sold by the above.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.
P. Burroughs, Thomas Hart Benton: A Portrait, New York, 1981, p. 179, illustrated.
Owen Gallery, Benton: On the Vineyard, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2008, p. 27, fig. 7, illustrated.
Post lot text
This work will be included in the forthcoming Thomas Hart Benton catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Thomas Hart Benton Catalogue Raisonné Foundation. Committee Members: Dr. Henry Adams, Jessie Benton, Anthony Benton Gude, Andrew Thompson and Michael Owen.

Brought to you by

Tylee Abbott
Tylee Abbott Vice President, Head of American Art

Lot Essay

As the twentieth century’s champion of rural America, Thomas Hart Benton dedicated himself to an honest portrayal of the nation’s singular landscape. Among his many inspirations, the small Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard had a significant impact on the artist’s defining style. Emblematic of the everyday American subject matter he sought to champion, Keith Farm, Chilmark represents the culmination of the great Regionalist master’s craft.

Early in his career, Benton studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and in Paris, where he spent several years admiring the work of French painters Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse and interacting with fellow American Modernists Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Morgan Russell. Of these, Cézanne’s use of bold colors and quick broad brushwork to build landscapes of harmonious, monumental color and form that moved beyond the ephemeral, fleeting Impressionist conceptions of a landscape, had lasting impact on Benton. However, neither these settings, nor the perspectives of his fellow artists, satisfied Benton’s quest for purpose in his art. He then spent the years from 1912 to 1918 searching for answers in New York, experimenting with work ranging from portraiture and illustration to outright abstraction and synchronism. It was not until Benton joined the United States Navy in 1918 and was assigned to sketch their activities that he found true direction for his art: a combined focus on subject as much as on style.

In 1920, in the early days of this new approach to his work, Benton first sought refuge from the sweltering summer days of New York on Martha’s Vineyard. Sparsely populated at the time of his first visit in 1920—well before it became a popular vacation destination—the island provided new clarity with which Benton developed his singular artistic language. As the artist himself reported, “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…. It freed my art from the dominance of narrow urban conceptions and put me in a psychological condition to face America.” (P. Burroughs, Thomas Hart Benton: A Portrait, Garden City, New York, 1981, p. 100)

Newly energized, Benton painted with vigor, applying the various techniques from his studies to an entirely different subject: rural America. As apparent in his early Vineyard landscapes, such as The Cliffs (1921, The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.), Benton at first vacillated between varying degrees of abstraction and realism. As his confidence grew, Benton continued to shift his focus towards everyday life on the island and created his first American genre paintings—the unique realistic and figurative renderings of rural subjects that cemented his fame. While he would eventually move to the Midwest and find inspiration there, Benton continuously returned to Martha’s Vineyard throughout his career, eventually purchasing a cottage in the area of Chilmark, with his island scenes always maintaining a place of prominence in his career, as represented by July Hay (1943, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and June Morning (1945, Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Jacksonville, Florida).

As America transformed into an industrial superpower during the years of World War II, and Benton’s rural America began to vanish, he began to favor landscapes over figures, including in his Martha’s Vineyard works. Matthew Baigell notes, “By the 1950s and certainly in the 1960s, Benton could no longer insinuate himself easily into conversations; people had become leery of strangers, and the old roads had, as often as not, been paved or even turned into four lane highways. As a result, his ability to…record the typical appearance of a region’s inhabitants, simply evaporated.” (Thomas Hart Benton, New York, 1973, p. 178) As seen in Keith Farm, Chilmark, Benton’s romantic views of rural America increasingly relegated human subjects to distant forms, seeking in his landscapes a timeless, nostalgic representation of an American way of life under threat. Baigell continues, “In many ways, though, his more remarkable achievements are the landscapes of this period. In these, it would appear that Benton’s overwhelming love of America found its true outlet—in the streams, hills, and the mountains of the country, populated by people unsuspectingly living out their time, quietly enjoying themselves, living easily on the land, celebrating nothing more than their existence.” (Thomas Hart Benton, New York, 1973, p. 183)

In the process of creating such works, while Benton’s Regionalism was often described as a counterpoint to the trend toward abstraction during in his era, Benton himself was clear: “Contrary to general belief, the ‘Regionalist’ movement did not in any way oppose abstract form. It simply wished to put meanings, recognizable American meanings, into some of it.” (An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography, Lawrence, Kansas, 1969, p. 77) For Keith Farm, Chilmark, Benton finds his “American meaning” within a well-known vantage point, which was considered at the time to be one of the best representations of the local landscape. Polly Burroughs, a neighbor and friend of the Benton family on Martha’s Vineyard, wrote of the vista, “One of the Island’s spectacular views is on the Middle Road in Chilmark, just up the hill above Beetlebung Corner at the Keith’s beef cattle farm. With the open rolling pastures, the Atlantic Ocean beyond, and those familiar linear cloud formations, it evokes the tranquility the artist himself felt on the Vineyard.” (Thomas Hart Benton: A Portrait, New York, 1981, p. 179)

Indeed, in the process of capturing such a special place, Benton employs his instantly recognizable, yet decidedly Modern style. He transforms the composition, elevating it beyond just a picturesque view, by organizing his composition into horizontal bands of color, stacking his landscape into linear blocks. Simultaneously, Benton imbues the work with a sense of motion by using sinuous forms, each rendered in flowing deep, complimentary and contrasting colors. Typical of Benton’s best paintings, the combination of these techniques results in a spiraling configuration, which pulls each individual element into a unifying scheme of visual rhythm. The result is a distinct understanding of subject and place akin to Modern regionalist masters of a different type: California painters Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud. In each instance, by stripping the landscape down to its basic tendencies via a modern treatment, the resulting canvases have come to embody pride in entire regions of America. With Keith Farm, Chilmark, Benton’s treatment of a representational subject matter combined with boldly abstracted and undulating forms achieves an obvious reverence for America: understood today as a hallmark of the artist’s oeuvre.

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