Thomas Hart Benton 1889 - 1975
- Thomas Hart Benton
- Menemsha Hurricane
- signed Benton and dated 54 (lower right)
- oil on canvas mounted on board
Gift to the present owner from the above
The first owner of this painting, Alfred Eisenstaedt, was one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. Born in Poland in 1898, Eisenstaedt moved to Berlin as a small child and took up photography in his early teens. The first photoplay magazines were just being created at the time--this happened in Germany before the United States--and Eisenstaedt quickly recognized the potential of the lightweight Leica camera, introduced in 1924, to create a new kind of vivid journalistic imagery. In 1927 he sold his first photograph to a magazine, and in the ensuing years he rapidly established himself as one of Germany’s most successful photo-journalists. His pictures from this period still seem vivid and alive and touch on an amazing range of human emotions, from a humorous snapshot of a skating waiter in a tuxedo to an intensely disturbing picture of Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Josef Goebbels, glaring at the camera with his face twisted in hate because he had learned that Eisenstaedt was Jewish. In 1935, as persecution of Jews intensified, Eisenstaedt fled to the United States and was promptly hired by Henry Luce for Life. Over the years he produced hundreds of memorable photographs for Life of every conceivable subject, including 90 cover illustrations. Probably his most famous photograph, V-J Day, shows an American sailor kissing a young woman in Times Square on August 14, 1945, the day World War II ended.
Eisenstaedt first met Benton in 1936, when he photographed him for a story in Life about Benton’s controversial Missouri mural for the State Capitol in Jefferson City (see “Thomas Benton Paints a History of His Own Missouri,” Life Magazine 2 no.9, March 1, 1937, pp. 32-7). The following year, 1937, Eisenstaedt was assigned by Life to do a photo story on Martha’s Vineyard, and was so taken by the island that after returning to New York, he turned around and came back to the Vineyard for another two weeks of vacation. He returned regularly to the Vineyard for the next 50 years, generally staying at the Menemsha Inn not far from Benton’s home. As a consequence of their proximity, he and Benton established a friendship that lasted until the artist’s death in 1975.
Eisenstaedt made memorable photographs of Benton and his family every summer, including wonderful close-ups of Benton’s grizzled face as an old man and ravishing images of the artist’s daughter Jessie. In 1937, while photographing a party at the Benton home, he also took pictures of Benton’s student Jackson Pollock-- who was living behind the Benton home in a former chicken coop christened “Jack’s Shack,” and helping Tom around the place by clearing brush, chopping wood and gardening.
In 1939, Eisenstaedt made a trip to Kansas City to photograph Benton completing his famous painting Persephone, working directly from the nude model (see “Benton’s Nudes People the Ozarks,” Life Magazine 6, no. 8 (February 20, 1939): 38-9). This resulted in one of his most famous photographs, as is suggested by the fact that Andy Warhol acquired a print of it for his personal collection.
Benton’s daughter Jessie recalls: “Izzi was a wonderful friend, always around when I was growing up, always shooting pictures. Daddy felt that at times he was a pest with the damn camera....We had no idea he was so famous” (E-mail to the author, October 17, 2012).
Benton made two major paintings of Martha’s Vineyard in 1954, View of Menemsha (Fig. 2), formerly owned by Barbara Streisand, and this painting. Both show Menemsha Pond, located on the western extremity of Martha’s Vineyard, which is not actually a pond but an ocean inlet surrounded by sand bars. While not strictly pendants, since they are not the same size, Benton may well have conceived the paintings as a contrasting pair. The first, a study in calm, shows an artist at his easel in the foreground transcribing the mirror smooth surface of Menemsha Pond, with the harbor in the distance. By contrast, this painting, whose viewpoint is from the opposite shore, is a study in turbulence.
The subject is the onset of a hurricane--with storm clouds, rough water, straining figures, and a singularly restless composition. In the foreground, three figures with the help of rollers pull a dory from the water. To the right four windswept figures look seaward. In the distance three figures climb a hillside road. In the far distance a pier with two shacks contains the wreckage of two or three upturned boats. In the left middle-ground is a topsy-turvy cubist cluster of shacks and wreckage, with two boats tied to a small pier. Interestingly, rather than showing the height of the storm’s fury, as he did in an earlier hurricane painting, Flight of the Thielens (1938; private collection), which shows a wave breaking over helpless figures, Benton chose to represent its onset, with figures preparing for the storm’s onslaught.
One of the most interesting elements of this lot is the large-scale drawing for the painting (Fig. 1). Benton must have made large-scale drawings of this sort for nearly every painting that he made, but very few survive, no doubt because Benton destroyed them since they were hard to store. It is fascinating to study the drawing and painting side by side, detail by detail, and see how Benton refined the composition, slightly expanding the field of view and introducing more complex visual rhythms. In its large scale composition, the drawing stresses a simple circular movement whereas the painting forms more of a figure-8.
Remarkably, Martha’s Vineyard was hit by two hurricanes in 1954. The first was Hurricane Carol, which hit without warning on August 30th with winds that gusted to 90 miles-an-hour, causing extraordinary devastation, and leaving Dutcher Dock in Menemsha piled high with the wreckage of yachts and fishing boats. Eisenstaedt, who was on the island at the time, recalled that when the winds of Carol began to subside in early afternoon, he hurried down to the waterfront to take pictures and found that Benton was already there, making sketches. As he later stated:
I dressed in my bathing suit with my Leica camera in a plastic bag under my oil slicker and walked down to the harbor. There was still plenty of wind and rain. Benton was there painting this tragic scene. I would take out my camera, snap quickly, then put it under my slicker” (See Polly Burroughs, Eisenstaedt: Martha’s Vineyard, Oxmoor House, Birmingham, Alabama, 1987, p. 82).
The second was Hurricane Edna, which hit ten days later, on September 11, with winds that gusted to 110 miles-an-hour, but which did less damage than Carol since this time there was ample warning that the storm was coming and it hit at low tide. This painting could record either storm, but its traditional title suggests that it represents Hurricane Carol, most likely at exactly the point in time in early afternoon when the storm had lulled a little and when Eisenstaedt went out to take his photographs. The twisted configuration of the shacks in the background is clearly not simply the result of Benton’s enthusiastic distortions but a record of the morning’s hurricane damage.
Eisenstaedt surely acquired the painting in part as a souvenir of a remarkable experience that he and Benton had shared. No doubt he was also fascinated by the way that Benton’s painting contrasted with his own photographs of the event, and twisted every element into a distinctively Bentonesque visual rhythm.