Could That Be a Pollock?

George Brehm’s steamer trunk held a wealth of treasures.

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“George Brehm was my great-grandfather,” Matt Taylor of Chilmark said when I visited him last fall. “He died six years before I was born, but he remained a very strong presence in the family — his paintings adorned practically every wall of our house.”

Brehm was one of the fathers of the golden age of illustration; he painted covers for the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and many of the major magazines from the first half of the 20th century.

He also did advertising illustrations for companies like Pepsi, Nabisco, and Amoco. His commercial paintings of Santa Claus are legendary. “George’s first paintings of Santa Claus were done in the 1890s or very early 1900s,” Taylor said. “He was one of the first illustrators to paint Santa wearing red; before that he wore green and blue robes and pointed hats.”

Brehm was born in 1878, and raised in rural Indiana. After attending Indiana University for a year, he decided to devote his career to illustration, and moved to New York, where he studied at the Art Students League, and in a very short period of time made connections with art directors from major magazines; his career caught fire. He illustrated in the art deco style that became all the rage in the early 1900s.

Brehm shared a studio in New York with his brother, Worth, who was a successful illustrator in his own right, regularly doing book illustrations for Edgar Rice Burroughs and Mark Twain. And they were joined by a young illustrator who would also go on to create iconic Saturday Evening Post covers named Norman Rockwell. Rockwell often spoke about how the Brehm brothers were two of his main inspirations.

Brehm also formed a close friendship with the famous American Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton, whom he met through the Art Students League. “I’ve heard that they first became friends because of their mutual Midwest background,” Taylor said.

In 1915, Brehm and his wife Katherine visited Martha’s Vineyard for the first time, and fell in love with it. Flush with the earnings from his success as a commercial artist, Brehm bought a large tract of land on Stonewall Beach in Squibnocket, and later bought hundreds of acres on North Road near Menemsha. 

“Today, most of the family still resides on the Vineyard,” Taylor said. “His daughter Elizabeth was my grandmother, and she married my grandfather, Mike Athearn, who was 12th generation West Tisbury, which ties George’s descendants into most of the old Island families.”   

Eager to share the Vineyard with his friends, Brehm told the Bentons about the Island in 1920, and urged them to check it out. Like the Brehms, the Bentons succumbed to the charm of the Island, and bought property near the Brehms on Stonewall Beach.

Taylor’s grandmother, Elizabeth (Brehm) Athearn, recalled picnics at Stonewall Beach where the Brehms, Thomas Hart Benton, Tom Craven (a renowned art critic and painter), and a young painter named Jackson Pollock would swim, and draw, and paint every day. 

They would pin their drawings to the wall of the camp and throw them all away at the end of each summer. When his grandmother told that to Taylor, she said, “Imagine that — if we’d only known what they’d be worth someday.”

Jackson Pollock had arrived in New York in the early 1930s, and Benton, some 20 years Pollock’s senior, took him under his wing. And toward the end of the decade, Pollock, then only 18 or 19 years old, began accompanying Tom and Rita Benton to the Vineyard.

In “Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock,” by Henry Adams, the enfant terrible in Pollock is revealed.

“Benton first recognized his student’s drinking problem on the Vineyard when Pollock arrived on the ferry, bought a bottle of gin for his mentor, but drank it instead,” Adams wrote. “Drunk, Pollock fell off his bicycle en route to the Bentons, and was jailed overnight.”

As further evidence of Pollock’s relationship with Brehm, Taylor said, “One of the Benton biographies mentions that Tom Benton’s impromptu musical group occasionally performed at the Brehms’ camp on Stonewall Pond, and that on several occasions, Jackson Pollock sat in and played the Jew’s harp.” 

Pollock would continue to come to the Vineyard until 1938. And in the 1940s, George Brehm would go into semiretirement, and pack up many of his illustrations into a steamer trunk that sat in his home off North Road in Chilmark until Matt Taylor happened upon it in 2010.


Could that be a Pollock?

“One day in 2010, I was at the Brehm homestead in Chilmark, where George’s daughter, my then-93-year-old Great-Aunt June lived,” Taylor told me. “I was helping her to organize George’s home studio; it was really cluttered, and she said to me, ‘If you see anything you want, you can have it.” As it turned out, there was something that had caught Taylor’s eye. “It was an old steamer trunk,” he said, “like you might have seen in the movie ‘Titanic,’ getting hauled up in chains.” 

For all Taylor knew, it was empty. He just liked the look of it. It turned out to be quite heavy, and when he pulled it out and popped it open, he could scarcely believe what he saw.

“The first layer was full of George Brehm’s art supplies — tubes of paint, brushes, and pallet knives going back 100 years,” Taylor said. “Mice had chewed into the tubes of paint, but they didn’t get to the drawings and paintings stacked beneath the art supplies. There were bundles of original Saturday Evening Post pictures, finished oil paintings and preliminary sketches, photos of people modeling for the illustrations he did for Coke and Pepsi, Hellman’s, Nabisco — there was even a vinyl recording of George telling a story he had heard growing up in Indiana in the 1880s about Indians chasing the Cavalry. There was a letter from Norman Rockwell, and then tucked away amid the memorabilia and clutter, there was something carefully wrapped in parchment paper and tied with a bowstring.” 

Taylor opened it up: It was an oil painting done on a Masonite board depicting Menemsha Harbor, clearly pre–the 1938 hurricane. It showed three fishing shacks with dinghies tied up in front. The painting struck Taylor as being amateurish, clearly not a Brehm or a Benton. And yet it was carefully wrapped, and it was something Brehm felt was important enough to save. “I immediately wondered who painted it, because it seemed very out of place — somewhat abstract, and very amateurish, unlike anything else in the trunk.”

Taylor spent several days going through the contents of the trunk, and put the painting on the mantle, hoping to draw some inspiration from it that would lead him to the identity of the painter, and then inspiration did indeed strike — like a bolt of lightning. One night he looked at the painting and noticed what appeared to be two initials written in pencil in the lower lefthand corner of the back of the painting. ”One of the letters looked like an upside-down ‘V’ and the other looked like a ‘P’ with a tail shooting off the bottom,” Taylor said. 

“I remembered my grandmother telling me about how Jackson Pollock was part of Brehm’s and Benton’s circle of Chilmark summer friends, so I Googled some of Pollock’s early signatures, and found that his very distinctive ‘J’ and ‘P’ matched the letters on my painting almost perfectly.” Taylor joked to his wife, “Maybe it’s a Pollock.” 

Taylor and the handful of Vineyard artists he has shared the painting with have admitted they feel the initials on the back of the painting are indeed Pollock’s, and there are other theories to explain why George Brehm thought enough of this little painting to include it in the trunk. 

West Tisbury painter John Athearn (see story on Johnny Athearn, page 33) concurs with Taylor that it is highly unlikely that a master and fine artist such as George Brehm would have kept such an amateurish little painting so carefully stored away with his own life’s work unless it held some great significance.  

One does not have to be an art historian to see that the painting is definitely not from Brehm, Benton, Tom Craven, Norman Rockwell, Johnny Gruelle, Percy Cowan, J.C. Leyendecker, or any of the other highly skilled artists the Brehms hosted on Martha’s Vineyard. 

Many of the painting’s qualities bear a striking resemblance to other known Pollocks from the 1930s, particularly the teardrop shapes used to depict the boats. The ill-defined man seated aboard the skiff is nearly identical to the boaters which appear in Pollock’s 1934 paintings “Menemsha Pond,” and “Seascape.” That same year, Pollock painted “TP’s Boat in Menemsha Pond.” TP was Tom Benton’s son. The artist’s known Vineyard paintings share other characteristics with the painting found in Brehm’s trunk — the use of bold, black lines, brushstrokes, colors, the shape and size of the paintings, and the subject of Menemsha itself, Pollock’s favorite place to paint while on the Island. 

Island artist Allen Whiting recalled that a couple of years ago, the M.V. Museum held a retrospective for Thomas Hart Benton, and included in the show was an early Jackson Pollock landscape that was very similar to the painting in Brehm’s trunk. 

“I know that George offered advice on painting to Vineyard artists,” Taylor said, “like Willie Huntington and John Athearn, who was just a kid at the time. He taught them basic methods of oil painting, and lent out his art supplies. I spoke with Allen Whiting about this, and he and I both thought it plausible that Jackson Pollock, probably in his early 20s, sat with George on several occasions to learn some of the basics.” 

Whiting also theorized that perhaps Pollock gifted the painting to Brehm out of respect for him as a teacher, or perhaps Brehm bought the painting for a few dollars as a way to encourage Pollock as a fledgling artist.

But why would he include the painting in his trunk? “Jackson Pollock had begun to enjoy recognition in the early 1940s,” Taylor said; “his first show at the Guggenheim was in 1943. That was right about the time that George was entering into semiretirement, and packing his trunk. I think he kept the painting at the Chilmark house because of some fond memory associated with it. It’s likely that with Pollock’s newfound celebrity, the painting suddenly took on even more significance, and perhaps that’s why George chose to save it. There’s nothing insignificant in that trunk. There are originals by the noted impressionist William Forsythe in there, as well.”

In 2018, Taylor had the painting analyzed, and it confirmed that the painting was rendered in the 1930s, which fit with Taylor’s own timeline. 

The appraisers did caution, however, that there are lots of fake Pollocks out there, and the Pollock estate is leery of any “newly discovered” pieces, as many are presented by people trying to make a fast buck. Therefore, even though the provenance for Brehm’s painting is virtually rock-solid, they could not officially authenticate it. 

The reasons they gave were that it’s not a part of the official Pollock catalogue. But then again, how could it be? It had been in Brehm’s trunk for more than 75 years. What’s more, the appraisers felt there was no specific evidence to suggest that Jackson Pollock ever actually gave George Brehm a painting, even though the Brehms and the Bentons were close friends and neighbors both in Chimark and New York City, and Pollock was like a member of the Benton family.

“I’ve shown the painting around, but I’m not sure I’d want to sell it. If it were one of Pollock’s drip paintings, I’d be at Christies in a flash,” Taylor said. “It’s a great little token from the days when the Brehms and Bentons and their artist friends picnicked, swam, and painted at Stonewall Beach back in the 1920s and ’30s. It’s a little piece of a fascinating chapter of Vineyard history, and my great-grandfather was a big part of it.”


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