Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Saturday 16 December 2017

Self-Portrait with Rita

What's it like being The Most Powerful Person in the World?

Do you jump out of bed in high excitement and beat that chest? And on holidays do you chill? Putin likes to show off. Topless, on horseback, he enjoys the fresh air of the Altai Mountains in Siberia or swimming in what must be chilly rivers. The other contender for that powered top spot, Barack Obama, is on Martha's Vineyard right now. He's staying in a $12m, seven-bedroom, nine-bathroom gaff with its own basketball court and when this Mr Pres nets a ball he keeps his top on.

Trendier than Siberia, it's the Obamas' sixth time holidaying on this little island in Massachusetts and though 15,000 is the regular pop, the First Family and others swell the number to 100,000 in high season.

All his life the Vineyard was a favourite destination for American artist Thomas Hart Benton. Born in land-locked Missouri, Benton came from a family of politicians and Thomas was sent by his Colonel father to Western Military Academy. But Daddy's plans were thwarted. His rebel son opted for the Art Institute of Chicago. He did however serve in the US Navy during the war and his artistic talents were put to use: he designed camouflage patterns for naval ships.

Paris-trained, he rejected modernism (Jackson Pollock, a student of his, claimed his teacher gave him something to rebel against) and typical Benton subject matter included city streets, rural landscapes, shipyards, railroads, the Ku Klux Klan, the small farmer: daily life in America was Benton's speciality, Regionalism his genre. He painted murals, illustrated classic texts (Huck Finn, The Grapes of Wrath) and every July, on her birthday on Martha's Vineyard, he made a painting for his daughter Jessie. This stylised portrait of Benton and his wife, in their prime, is also a Martha's Vineyard painting. Painted in 1922 this is Benton at 33, the age of perfection. Though a seaside scene with cliff shore and deep blue sea this is no snap shot. Benton stands tall, bare-chested, an almost Biblical figure. Married for almost 53 years, in this painting husband and wife are healthy, handsome and in their own way, powerful.

by Thomas Hart Benton

oil on canvas

courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC

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