Thomas Hart Benton’s Vineyard Lithographs


Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), born in Missouri, was one of the founding fathers of the American Regionalism movement of painting, focused on depicting places and faces — mostly of the Midwest and the South — in early 20th century America. Each summer, like others then and now, Benton and his family left their year-round home on the Plains to summer on Martha’s Vineyard. It was here, over a period of 50 summers, along with his creative contemporaries and friends, including Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt and Saturday Evening Post illustrator and fellow Midwesterner George Brehm, that Benton turned his gaze to documenting the Island’s natural character and characters.

A&I asked Chris Morse, owner of the Granary Gallery and a collector of Benton’s work — which includes paintings, lithographs, and drawings — to curate a “best of Benton lithographs” collection. Naturally, Morse selected works celebrating the Island, with the thought that “the images may not be identifiable as a particular field, or view, but there’s a recognizable Vineyard narrative.” Or maybe the piece is familiar because you’ve seen it hanging in a family home on the Island. According to Morse, “After so many years here at the gallery, it’s been interesting to learn how many persons were gifted lithographs for wedding, anniversary, and Christmas presents. All of them signed, ‘Love, Tom and Rita’.” If you haven’t been lucky enough to be gifted a Benton — yet — these pages are for you.

The work of Thomas Hart Benton is on view year-round at the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury, with a special showing of lithographs this summer, August 19 to 26.


“After the Blow,” 1946 | 13⅞ x 9¾ in. | edition of 250

Chris Morse Probably my favorite, with its wildly tumultuous sky and dramatic sea. I love how the boundary between land and sea and sky is lost in the hurricane. You can feel the energy and scale of nature. In his painter’s note for another image of a steam engine train, Tom wrote, “You can’t get any emotional kick out of what you can’t see.” I think he found the kick of nature here.


“Repairing the Sloop,” 1973 | 17⅞ x 13⅞ in. | edition of 250

CM This is a later piece featuring Tom and Rita’s son, T.P., up in Chilmark, repairing the sloop he built after bringing it up from Florida, where he had been living. It’s a lot quieter than “After the Blow,” and such a nice nod to how he incorporated his kids, T.P. and daughter Jessie, into his work. Family meant a lot to him.


“Island Hay,” 1945 | 12⅝ x 10 in. | edition of 250

CM What’s so great about this work is how the rolling waves of hay reference the sea. I think it’s amazing Tom was able to create color and meaning in monochromatic images.


“White Calf,” 1945 | 13¼ x 10¾ in. | edition of 250

CM This one’s fun. Benton’s painter’s note reads, “Henry Look of Chilmark, Martha’s Vineyard, milking his cow. Henry had a good deal selling his milk until some prying summer persons found him straining it in his snot-filled handkerchief. Trade with Henry dropped off after that.” As well it should’ve — funny how the relationship between year-rounders and summer visitors is still part of the conversation.


“The Music Lesson,” 1943 | 12½ x 10⅛ in. | edition of 250

CM Music was a very big part of Tom’s life, and he played the harmonica with some level of excellence. This is a portrait of the Vineyard folk singer Gale Huntington with his daughter Emily Rose. It’s interesting how the folds of fabric evoke the rolling fields from his landscapes. Similar to the rolling waves of hay that reference the sea in “Island Hay.” Everything feels alive, not static.

Leave a reply

Theme developed by TouchSize - Premium WordPress Themes and Websites