‘The Battle of Beetlebung Corner’


Two famous Vineyard artists duke it out to create memorable portraits of each other in their own unique styles.


In 1954, in addition to acquiring the Benton murals for the New Britain Museum of American Art, my father, Sandy Low, was able to purchase two extraordinary portraits, one of Denys Wortman by Tom Benton, the other of Benton by Wortman. Here’s that story, as written by my father in his memoirs.


“Benton, with some difficulty, persuaded Denys to pose for him, and all went well for a while, until Wortman began to chafe under the constant strain of being immobilized. Wortman, being normally very active, conditions became nigh unbearable until Tom suggested he take up paper and pencil to occupy his hands and mind and do some sketches of Benton painting. This worked fine until there accumulated on the floor a pile of sketches of Benton in every conceivable and inconceivable pose, and Wortman was once again restless. When they met again for the next sitting, Tom had arranged an easel, a large canvas, and a complete set of paints and brushes by Wortman’s chair, and had selected a half-dozen of his best sketches to be used for a portrait of Benton by Wortman.

This was a challenge completely suited to Wortman’s temperament and talents, and, after a momentary qualm or two, he plunged with great relish and gusto into the work of transferring Benton to canvas. I had known nothing of this development, and was astounded to find that there was not only Benton’s excellent painting but a remarkably well-composed and strong painting of Benton by Wortman, and although slightly more a caricature than a painting, it was by its very simplicity in color and great strength of drawing, one of the most exciting canvases I had seen in a long time. Both paintings were in the last stages of completion, and I made many subsequent visits to the studio in Chilmark, enjoying the stimulating talents and conversations of both men and the extreme warmth and hospitality of the Benton family.”

My father had been focused on acquiring the Benton portrait of Wortman, but when he saw Wortman’s portrait of Benton, he wanted them both. “Both pictures had been painted almost simultaneously under such ideal, creative conditions,” he wrote. “They were as related as fire and smoke, and to separate them would seem a great injustice. I was not alone in these thoughts, as both men concurred wholeheartedly when I suggested a possible dual acquisition.”

The story of the portraits gets even better. The editor of Collier’s magazine, then perhaps the most popular of any American periodical, was a friend of Benton’s, and saw the paintings in his studio. The result was a humorous article in the Oct. 16, 1953, edition, titled ’’The Battle of Beetlebung Corners.”

’’When savages duel, they tear one another to shreds with whatever monstrous weapons are at hand. But civilized gentlemen are not so crude. Their tiffs are fought with pointed words, barbs of wit, or deft ideas that draw no blood.

“Portrait of Thomas Hart Benton”

“Thomas Hart Benton, of Kansas City, Mo., is one of America’s most famous fine artists. Denys Wortman is a cartoonist, the creator of ‘Mopey Dick and the Duke,’ a widely syndicated newspaper cartoon. Benton and Wortman have been meeting at Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., near a place called Beetlebung Corners for the past 30 summers. They are great friends. But beetle-browed Tom Benton is a spirited soul who likes nothing better than a fight. Last month he challenged the placid Mr. Wortman to the most sophisticated duel since medieval poets flung verses at one another: He suggested that they oppose artistic talents in a match to see which of them could produce the better portrait of the other.

“Wortman was reluctant, but he says: ‘Sitting for hours with that pirate glowering at me with his super analytical stare and his sketchbook was too much for me. I had to defend myself.’

“The results of the momentous duel appear on these pages. To a wrestling referee, it probably doesn’t look like much of a battle, but an art critic who has seen the portraits writes: ‘The two paintings demonstrate impressive facility in technique, tremendous power, and extraordinary balance of subject matter with philosophical intent.’ Translation: Man, wotta fight!”

Everyone read Collier’s in those days, and the publication of the article had a fun repercussion that Benton related in a letter to my father: “An amusing incident occurred in the Utah desert, which shows how good a likeness Denys produced of me. I came in late in the evening to a small settlement and made inquiries about a place to stay. At the filling station where I had stopped, I noticed the proprietor looking very closely at me. Later when I got settled, this fellow came over and examined me with a flashlight, and then said, ‘I saw a picture of you the other day in some magazine. Where was it?’ I asked him if it was Collier’s, perhaps, and he agreed, of course, that it was. This got us off on an acquaintance which should be helpful in the future, because this new friend is not only a filling station operator, but hunting guide, rancher, mailman, and thoroughly knowing about one of the last great lonely areas of this country.”

Benton closed the letter with this: “I am delighted that the New Britain Museum has acquired our pictures, and I hope that your visitors will get some of the kick out of our works that Denys and I got while doing them. Sincerely, Tom.”

And I, in relating this tale, hope that you — dear reader — get a kick out of it too.

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