The Great Thomas Hart Benton Art Heist

 

A small Connecticut museum “steals” priceless Thomas Hart Benton murals from New York’s famous Whitney Museum — and the “Vineyard connection” behind the caper.

 

On a frigid day in December 1953, five very large crates, 16 by 24 by 3 feet, were hoisted out of a skylight at 10 West 8th St. in the heart of Greenwich Village, quickly loaded into a van and driven across state lines to a modest brick mansion in New Britain, Conn. In the crates were murals painted by one of the greatest of American artists, Thomas Hart Benton. When news spread among cognoscenti, it would be called “The Great Benton Art Heist.” But the murals were not literally stolen, they were acquired from New York’s famous Whitney Museum by the much smaller New Britain Museum of American Art for the ludicrous sum of $100 each. Today it would be difficult to assign a price to them. How this happened is a remarkable story that began with a meeting of three men — Sandy Low, Denys Wortman, and the artist Tom Benton, on Martha’s Vineyard.

The story begins with food.

“Indian Arts”

Denys Wortman was a nationally syndicated cartoonist and painter. Sandy Low, my father, was director of the New Britain Museum, and a talented watercolorist. The two men were drawn to each other by their love of both art and cooking — and they concocted great feasts long before the word “gourmet” had made its transatlantic crossing. Among other gustatory delights, they created an unusual horseshoe crab bisque — which was a failure — and put on a traditional Hawaiian luau (my father being part Hawaiian) — which was a great success.

One summer day in 1950, Denys invited Sandy to accompany him to visit Tom Benton at his summer studio in Chilmark, overlooking Menemsha Pond and Vineyard Sound. My father was nervous about the meeting because Benton held museums in very low esteem, having once said, “I would rather exhibit my pictures in whorehouses and saloons, where normal people can see them.” The occasion for Dad’s visit was to see a portrait of Denys that Benton was painting. To relax Denys while he posed, Benton had arranged for an easel to be set up and he encouraged Wortman to paint a portrait of him. The two portraits were so stunning that my father wanted to acquire them both for his museum. (See ‘The Battle of Beetlebung Corner‘)

“I had some misgivings about the encounter,” my father wrote in his memoirs. “I had long known of Mr. Benton’s vitriolic attitude toward museums, and especially museum directors. He had crossed horns many times with well-known museum officials from all over the country, and because of his profane verbosity, colorful phraseology, and newsworthy statements, there was always at hand a ready and willing press. There were many who were downright afraid of this little Caesar, and others who considered him a braggart, a publicity hound, and they did their best to minimize his sincerity by misleading and direct falsehoods concerning the integrity of his art. All this was but fuel to the fire. So I was prepared to meet a formidable person, and I was not disappointed.”

Benton and my father hit it off immediately, and in the later years of their long friendship, when Benton would visit our summer home in Harthaven, it was obvious to me that the two men loved to be in each other’s company, cooking great feasts with Denys, imbibing cocktails, talking art, and telling stories.

In the 1930s, during the heart of the Depression, Mr. Benton’s art — especially his murals — had captured the nation. He was the leader of a small group of artists called “regionalists,” who eschewed the popular European modernist/abstract style of painting to focus on representational scenes from the American heartland. Benton was the first artist to ever appear, in 1934, on the cover of Time magazine. But when Sandy and Tom first met in Chilmark, Benton’s star had declined precipitously. Abstract art, particularly the work of New York School artists like Jackson Pollock (interestingly enough, one of Benton’s former students) were in vogue. Representational, especially narrative, art like Benton’s, was considered passé.

“They took his paintings off the walls of just about every museum in the country,” Benton’s daughter, Jessie, remembered in an interview I conducted with her many years ago. “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.”

The Whitney Museum, once a staunch Benton supporter, was deaccessioning his murals, so Benton arranged their transfer to my father’s museum, and the rest is history.

“Arts of the South”

But why were the murals so cheap? In 1953, the Whitney Museum was preparing to move uptown from its home in Greenwich Village, and the murals were no longer wanted. There had been a misunderstanding between Mr. Benton and the museum staff (about their price, I think, when they were acquired in 1930), so the museum’s director, Hermon More, was eager to comply with Benton’s wishes that they go for a very modest price to a museum. Serendipitously, a previous inquiry from the University of Kansas City had fallen through, and the murals were up for grabs. My father wrote Benton immediately, and on Nov. 18, 1953, Benton responded: “Dear Sandy: Nothing would please me more than your acquisition of the Whitney Museum murals. If you can swing the deal with your trustees and the Whitney people it is O.K., all the way, with me … So, assert your claim. After you have done so it will be proper for me to rack you up, and I will write More that I approve of your claim.”

The deal was done.

The particular murals under discussion are titled “The Arts of Life in America.” Beholding them is to enter a now bygone world of daily life all across America at a time when our frontier was still fresh, when men toiled in honest labor and congregations gathered in revival meetings to find their Lord. Benton shows preachers thumping their pulpits, sweating men drawing steel from fiery blast furnaces, cowboys busting broncos, hillbillies assessing their cards in tawdry saloons, a locomotive hurtling across the tracks, ballerinas swirling, boxers slugging it out.

We are drawn deep into his paintings by an almost voyeuristic urge to inhabit the stories he weaves — to sit down at that card table, dance to that fiddle, tame that horse. Our ears prick to jazz bands, gospel singers, the clack of that racing train. And the composition enhances this blast of sound with a flow of bodies spiraling to the center. All these scenes are choreographed in a complex composition of intersecting panels. In every one there is riveting action, vivid color, and an almost musical composition.

About the act of creating murals such as these, Benton wrote in his book, “An Artist in America”: “The very thought of the large spaces puts me in an exalted state of mind, strings up my energies, and heightens the color of the world. After I have gone through practical preparations, which are elaborate and occupy the major part of the time spent on any job, a certain kind of thoughtless freedom comes over me. I don’t give a damn about anything. Once on the wall, I paint with downright sensual pleasure. The colors I use make my mouth water. The sweep of my brushes, after I really get started, become precise and somehow or other beyond error. I get cocksure of mind and temperamentally youthful. I run easily into childish egomania or adolescent emotionalism. When the mural is finished, I have a great letdown.”

Looking at these murals today, it is difficult to understand how such a brilliant and unique artistic vision could ever have come to be disdained. And sure enough, as my father had always expected, a few decades after the murals were transferred to New Britain, the pendulum of taste began to swing back in Benton’s direction. In 1989, an 85-painting retrospective of Benton’s work opened in Kansas City and went on to museums in Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles, to rave reviews. The centerpiece of the show was the “Arts of Life in America” murals. In 2005, the murals were once again on the walls of the Whitney, on loan from the New Britain Museum of American Art, in an exhibit hailed by the Whitney as a “landmark homecoming,” or, as the New York Times called the sale to my father’s museum, “a landmark blunder.” The paintings’ value, according to the story, was then a minimum of $10 million.

Today, these murals would simply be — as is Tom Benton’s contribution to the art world — priceless.

 

Sandy Low’s work will be featured in an exhibit titled “Harthaven Artists — Abbe, Low, Prizer” at the Francine Kelly Gallery at Featherstone Center for the Arts, beginning with the exhibit’s opening on July 22 and ending on August 8.

Photo credits for Mural images – Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Leave a reply

Theme developed by TouchSize - Premium WordPress Themes and Websites