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