November 26th, 2010

The painter’s vision

I was looking at a wonderful book I own, Paintings of New England, when I noticed this work by Thomas Hart Benton:

benton2.jpg

It’s of Martha’s Vineyard, a place Benton regularly summered, and a spot I’ve visited on occasion.

Benton is not one of my favorite artists. But this particular painting appeals to me, in part because it illustrates so forcefully the way the artist’s vision works. Millions of people could see that same sight—in fact, millions have. Other painters have even painted it (such as, I believe, this watercolor by Mina Goddard, from the late 1800s):

vineyardpainting.JPG

But no one sees it like Benton.

All artists—all good artists, that is—have a signature way of looking at the world. Benton sees nature and even people as dramatically scooped sculptural shapes that have a striking force. Everything he paints has been passed through that special sensibility and altered accordingly. As a result, students in art history courses can take those exams in which the professor shows them a painting they’ve never seen before, and if they’ve done their homework they can almost always identify the artist by his or her style fingerprint.

Here’s a photo of what I’m fairly sure is the original scene. You’ll see the resemblances to the Benton painting. But you’ll also see how much more exaggerated and dramatic Benton’s vision is:

marthasvineyardphoto.jpg

Beautiful indeed, but without the almost aggressively scooped shapes of the Benton work. Art imitates nature, but changes it by filtering it through the human mind.

14 Responses to “The painter’s vision”

  1. Nolanimrod Says:

    Overmuch has been written about that place but even with all the attention no one ever sees fit to reveal the True Secret of Martha’s Vineyard:

    Who is Martha and why does she get top billing?

    The Benton painting is interesting. Stylistically it reminds me of a cover for Atlas Shrugged.

    And, vis a vis styles, I’ll have you know I can identify a Van Gogh self portrait so long as it’s the one with the bandage.

  2. Michael F Says:

    The style of T.H. Benton’s work reminds me of a favorite, the late Russian mystic and painter Nicholas Roerich, whose work remains on display in NYC I believe. Or Google it.
    Well worth viewing.

  3. E Says:

    Bartholomew Gosnold is credited as the first European to note the position of the island the Wampanoag called Noepe. He named it Martha’s Vineyard for his wife and daughter, and for the abundance of wild grapes he observed there.

    Love the pictures, Neo. I have vivid memories of climbing on the rocks down to the beach at Gay Head in the 60s. Now of course the cliff paths are closed due to erosion. The whole area is tribal land now – only the cliffs are called Gay Head, and the town is properly called Aquinnah, and has its own tribal police force. They busted my mom – a year-round island resident – for illegal beach-plumming a few years ago. (The shame!)

  4. Oblio Says:

    Gosnold discovered MVY in 1602, before Henry Hudson discovered the Hudson River. It was a critical step in the European exploration of New England and the Mid Atlantic. In the 19th century, sea traffic between Boston and New York passed through the Vineyard Sound, and the Gay Head Light was and is a critical aid to navigation. The volume of shipping was heavy, and currents are strong, and the reefs are dangerous. It is something of a graveyard of ships. Even with electronic navigation, the Queen Elizabeth II struck a reef off Gay Head. John F. Kennedy Jr. crashed his plane there.

  5. Oblio Says:

    The artist chose a subject with a story beyond the view.

  6. strcpy Says:

    “Who is Martha and why does she get top billing?”

    I suspect no particular reason other than *someplace* has to get it. That is as good a scene as any I have seen. While I may prefer ones local to me they aren’t any better and there are many worse – as such all congregate to one point that they can all compare too.

    A great deal of “Why Me?” type of ideas (be they bad or good) come down to this – it isn’t that this particular place has any thing truly that special it is just that *someplace* has to be picked.

    Someone, somewhere, has to have lighting strike them. Someplace somewhere has to have it happen more than once. It isn’t total random (who would want to paint a picture of a tire recycling plant to express beauty?), but of those sites that are worthy of that there can only be so many famous ones.

    Martha’s Vineyard has a great deal of history in their along with the view making it one of a VERY select views to do. Granted more than a few of those points were mostly random – they still occurred and make it what it is today.

    I usually am usually not one to like art that isn’t mostly realistic – but I do prefer the one Neo starts with. It does seem to capture the *why* of the beauty of that view and exaggerate it.

  7. Gringo Says:

    “Who is Martha and why does she get top billing?”

    Which reminds me about the old story about how an old sea captain named islands in the area for his three daughters, the elder of whom were named Elizabeth [Elizabeth Islands}and Martha [Martha's Vineyard]. The final island? Nantucket.

  8. IGotBupkis Says:

    Regarding Rodin’s “She Who Used To Be The Beautiful Heaulmière“:

    “Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist — a master — and that is what Auguste Rodin was — can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is…and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be…and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply imprisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart…no matter what the merciless hours have done to her. Look at her, Ben. Growing old doesn’t matter to you and me; we were never meant to be admired-but it does to them.”
    — Robert A. Heinlein

  9. IGotBupkis Says:

    > John F. Kennedy Jr. crashed his plane there.

    Yes, but after all, he WAS a moron and an utter and completely arrogant tool.

  10. retriever Says:

    Am not usually a huge Benton fan, but I loved the painting, and your post was a good reminder to do with the world what I used to tiresomely badger my kids to “Make like the railroad sign–stop, look and listen”.

    Great quote from Heinlein, IGB, just used it…

  11. neo-neocon Says:

    IGotBupkis: Re that Heinlein quote and the Rodin sculpture, there’s also this poem by Robert Frost:

    PROVIDE, PROVIDE

    The witch that came (the withered hag)
    To wash the steps with pail and rag,
    Was once the beauty Abishag,

    The picture pride of Hollywood.
    Too many fall from great and good
    For you to doubt the likelihood.

    Die early and avoid the fate.
    Or if predestined to die late,
    Make up your mind to die in state.

    Make the whole stock exchange your own!
    If need be occupy a throne,
    Where nobody can call you crone.

    Some have relied on what they knew;
    Others on simply being true.
    What worked for them might work for you.

    No memory of having starred
    Atones for later disregard,
    Or keeps the end from being hard.

    Better to go down dignified
    With boughten friendship at your side
    Than none at all. Provide, provide!

  12. Artfldgr Says:

    I just make pretty things that induce responses in others… the makers experience of them is completely unable to be felt as to the maker the consumers experience is unknown as to their own work.

    artists (real and good ones, not necessarily the many who call themselves that now for a market that selects them for political ends more than any real reflection of what art is or means to man (not themselves or their ideology)), tend to have a very strong intuition of others minds and what or how they respond. this is different than the artists today who tend to do more of what they do for themselves, and repeat it endlessly…

    as seen in the promoted fallacy that neo puts forth too…

    All artists—all good artists, that is—have a signature way of looking at the world.

    no… all marketable artists are that way.. but GOOD arists are not necessarily more marketable because they may not dwell in repetitive styles,l methods, colors, and other such things.

    to walk in the home i am in right now, you will see a Rembrandt copy of the soldier. oils that were made in the old grand masters style… pencils done in different styles… two oriental watercolors… pastels… 8X10 foot panels…

    but there is only one name in the corner of all of them…

    when i went to present my stuff, i wsa signed immediately to photography and gallery after gallery explained that i needed to basically stick with one style, one manner one thing… for a long while… and so hat way many people could own a share in that period. if i did all these works that went from one incredible thing to another incredibvle thing, to sculpture to wire welding, to stain glass, to oils, pastels, acrylics, puzzle boxes, wood carving, hybrid leather work and more.. that they could not really sell my work as each work stood on its own and wasnt part of a mass collection they coudl push.

    so fine art stopped being fine art before i was born, which is why my father decided not to show is work, and all that. as now it was all commercial and pretense and substance now was gone…

    heck… once you learn ehnough history and realize that your not bedding the right people in your life (okeefe) then your not in the right click to be part of the different movements… at least after that post modern click occupied the hill… (the CIA funding some art to change the market in response to soviet games in the market didn’t help either. helps less that most never know that history then think of what it implies to our actual recognition of some over others (and payola ability to make or create false social movements))

    even kostabi did a series in how to be great like kostabi inc. and be in the movement. and it had more to do with working a social scene than creating real stuff, which again, is what it became (a farce).

    the fact that a 20 year old kid who will never show their work, but whose work appears as a commercial item or part of something, and that work blows the doors off of that socialist period of art masquerading as a new direction, will never be known or celebrated for what is greater talent, is really sad…

    today the mainstream of art is basically an elite game of the audience in the king has no clothes story. as a select socialist few judge and adjudicate what is art or not art, and the little people who look just “dont know what art is”, but “know what they like”… (read souskinds list of goals and objectives to visit upon the minds of your enemies, since mental bullets are not considered war, and will not be responded to (any more than odd manufacturing accidents on childrens products that add developmental stunting materials. oops))

  13. Artfldgr Says:

    who would want to paint a picture of a tire recycling plant to express beauty?

    how about a train bombing?

    http://www.moonbattery.com/age-of-shiva.jpg

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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