written by Sam Low


It was in 1953 that my father, Sandy Low, first met Tom Benton through their mutual friend Denys Wortman. My father was an artist but he was also the director of the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut and he was a little nervous about meeting Tom because Benton held museums in very low esteem having once said: “I would rather exhibit my pictures in whorehouses and saloons, where normal people can see them.” The occasion for Dad's visit was to see a portrait of Denys Wortman that Benton was painting. To ease the burden on Denys while he posed, Benton had arranged for an easel to be brought in and stimulated Wortman – a fine artist in his own right - to paint a portrait of him. Wortman's painting of Benton was so stunning that my father decided to acquire the two portraits for his museum.

“This was my first visit to Benton 's summer studio and home in the picturesque up-island township of Chilmark , overlooking beautiful Menemsha Pond and Vineyard Sound,” my father wrote of the encounter. “I had long known of his vitriolic attitude toward museums and especially museum directors, the former for their stuffiness and apparent hostility toward the public at large, and the latter for their effete and fashionable art interests and precious mannerisms. He had crossed horns many times with well known museum officials from all over the country, so I was prepared to meet a formidable person, and I was not disappointed. But Tom Benton at work and at peace with the world on Martha's Vineyard Island , was not the aggressive and pugnacious firebrand that I had read and heard about over the years. Why? For one thing, I think the island in late summer bestows a benevolent peace on the soul of any man, woman or child so fortunate as to come under its spell. Secondly, he was completely immersed in a labor of love, everything had turned out satisfactorily.”

Benton and my father hit it off immediately and in the later years of their friendship he would often visit our home on the Vineyard. “Your father,” I remember Benton telling me, ”is the damndest museum director I have ever known. For one thing, he's an artist himself. He's also a person who knows about art and art history. He's got a good eye. And he likes bourbon almost as much as I do.”

The art word is notoriously fickle. In 1953, Benton 's art was out of vogue. “They took his paintings off the walls of just about every museum in the country,” Jessie remembers. “Daddy was no longer fashionable. Representational art – what they considered American representational regional art - was no longer popular and they literally got rid of it.” One of the museums that was ridding itself of Tom's paintings was the Whitney in New York . Up for grabs were a series of five murals called The arts of Life in America . Benton was, my father thought, “one of the truly great American artists of this century,” and he decided to acquire these murals. The asking price was $500.00, which the museum gladly paid, and they are now the center piece of an entire wing, along with all of Benton 's lithographs which he donated to the museum. And sure enough, as my father had predicted, the pendulum of artistic taste swung back in Benton 's direction. In 1989, an 85 painting retrospective of Benton 's work opened in Kansas City and went on to museums in Detroit , New York and Los Angeles . The centerpiece of the show, on loan from the New Britain Museum of American Art, was the Arts of Life in America murals. Today the murals once again hang on the Whitney's walls in a temporary exhibit – through January 2, 2005 – hailed as a “landmark homecoming” or, as the New York Times called the sale to my father's museum, “a landmark blunder.” The value of the paintings, according to the story, would now be a minimum of $10 million. Today, Tom Benton's place among the best of American artists is secure.