Tom and Rita Benton

Art in the Making

A Collaboration of Two Original Works Coming to Auction on October 14.

Sea Phantasy I, circa 1925
Around 1922, the year they were married, Tom and Rita Benton teamed up for an unusual artistic collaboration. Not the one where, under Rita's shrewd stewardship, Thomas Hart Benton became one of America's most important artists. Rather, this creative partnership was manifested by the two working together in paint and fiber. It began with Tom creating a preliminary study in tempera and watercolor on a repurposed hardback book cover (perhaps the methods of what Ken Burns referred to as an 'impoverished painter' when describing Benton in this early period, a time when, according to Rita in a Jan 24 1943 KC Star interview, they summered in a rented barn on Martha's Vineyard). He then repeated the composition, with its dynamic central figure, in graphite on a 54 x 36 inch linen panel for Rita to finish in needlework embroidery - which she did in some areas. But it appears the project was set aside for another day while the two embarked on that other collaboration for which they are best known.
Around 1960, these two works by Thomas Hart Benton - the painting on board, and its much larger counterpart on linen - were acquired by the Bentons' close friend Ann Constable. Ann was more than just a friend and neighbor. She owned what turned out to be some of the artist's most valuable paintings and, following the artist’s death, became an authority on Tom's work. She even represented the estate for some time. When household names from Hollywood came to town looking to acquire a major painting, it was Ann who showed them around the vaults. Rita had always wanted Ann to finish the needlework design. Instead, Ann displayed the works just as they were, side‑by‑side on the wall of her living room for nearly 40 years.
In the early 1990s, Benton Family on South Beach, as the composition came to be known, was selected for the traveling museum exhibition Thomas Hart Benton: Drawing from Life, and published on page 87 of an associated book of the same name by Henry Adams. Of all the things Tom and Rita Benton would accomplish together, few artistic endeavors of this type between the two are known, making this, as Henry Adams described it, "clearly quite a unique and personally significant piece from a pivotal moment in Benton's artistic development."
Indeed, the importance of this lot extends beyond its unique genesis. The painting and large corresponding sketch serve as a valuable record of Thomas Hart Benton's early style iterations and artistic evolution from Modernism toward Regionalism. The design exhibits the influences of Benton's good friend Stanton Macdonald‑Wright (1890‑1973) and Synchronism, an art movement Benton experimented with early on; while anticipating where the artist was headed stylistically. During this same early period on Martha's Vineyard, other significant works exhibiting Modernist and Abstract influences through similar character studies include The Beach (circa 1920‑21) and - more so - People of Chilmark (circa 1921‑22), now in the Hirshorn Museum, with its similar central muscular lifeguard figure.
In his essay The Mechanics of Form Organization in Painting (Arts Magazine, 1927), Benton discusses the deployment of abstraction in building compositions, and backs it up with illustrations. Diagrams 14 and 15 (re‑created here, at left) are, without a doubt, at work in the painting on board and sketch on linen up for bid in this auction lot; while the principles of diagram N2 are manifested quite clearly in The Beach and People of Chilmark.
As for the artist creating designs to be finished in fiber and other mediums, Benton is known to have created a number of decorative designs in the 1920s which were then carried out by his mother and Rita. Shortly before her death, Jessie Benton donated a rug to the Martha's Vineyard Museum which was designed by her father but which she believed was made by Benton's mother.
More importantly, in the exhibition catalog for Thomas Hart Benton: Mechanics of Form, the authors Surovek Gallery and Lester‑Thompson Fine Art (Clay Surovek and Andrew and Kate Thompson) tell how “Benton joined a collective of artists, organized by Ralph Pearson, which designed decorative hooked rugs. Through his association with Pearson, and this collective, Benton secured the commission "consisting of a series of mural panels, a folding screen, hooked rugs and furniture for the den of Albert Briggs, an avid sportsman and big game fisherman." The most notable and enduring aspect of this commission would be the large, stylized, Modernist Phantasy Series mural panels, steeped in the elements of Synchronism and fully demonstrating the artist’s artistic roots; along with an underlying architecture of Abstraction that would be found in so many works to come.