Written By: Bill Syken
Thomas Hart Benton is a Missouri-born artist best known for his vibrant depictions of everyday life. Perhaps his most famous work is America Today, a sprawling mural which illustrated life across various regions of the country, a kind of visual “This Land is Your Land” in ten panels. He painted representative art and a time when many of his contemporaries, including his most famous disciple, Jackson Pollock, veered toward abstraction. and he is described as “a champion of mid-western rural America” on the official website for his work.
But Benton, like so many others, was not immune to the charms of Martha’s Vineyard, the island off the coast of Massachusetts, and he visited there regularly during the summer, starting in 1920 and going until his death in 1975. During those years Martha’s Vineyard began its transformation from an earthier and more bohemian retreat to a vacation spot for the rich and fashionable.
It was on this island off the coast of Massachusetts that LIFE staff photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt visited for a big story on Benton in the Oct. 3, 1969 issue. Benton could be a colorful and outspoken character, and the story carried the headline “Tom Benton, at 80, Still at War With Boobs and Bores.”
But despite the cantankerous headline, LIFE’s story described an island routine for Benton and his wife Rita that sounded idyllic:
The Bentons rise, as they always have, with the sun which, in the early summer, is 4 a.m., swim and work until noon. Rita fastens herself to the ocean bed as if she had grown out of it, and clams. “I find the clams with my foot,” she says luxuriantly, “and then dig them up with my heel, and reach down and pick them up with my hand. Wonderful!” Tom paints or, when he can discover something before Rita has attended to it herself, putters. This summer it was regluing the bottoms of their lawn chairs. “He spent three weeks,” scoffs Rita. “If he had spent three weeks painting, I could have bought the whole house again.”
While most of the photos in this set were taken for that 1969 story, two others are from 25 years earlier, when Eisenstaedt also snapped a couple frames of Benton while in Martha’s Vineyard working on a story on writer W. Somerset Maugham.
Benton left his mark on the island. The collection of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum includes Benton’s portrait of schooner captain Zeb Tilton, which he painted in front of an audience during a fundraiser for the local hospital. That museum in 2019 also staged an exhibition devoted to Benton.
It’s clear this child of the heartland had a special fondness for the island. A 2014 piece about Benton in Smithsonian Magazine began with his daughter Jessie in Martha’s Vineyard at the family home, and as the story’s writer was admiring a walkway and an artfully designed retaining wall on the way to the local pond, she informed him that Benton had made both himself. The daughter explained, “This was our world.”