Fascinating Rivers

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Published on: Feb. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010


One of Woodcock's most pleasant memories is the float trip he took with Benton on the Eleven Point River. "Benton demanded silence on the rivers," Woodcock says. "He had a strong sense of what a painting would look like before he started it. I was amazed by what he could see that I could not."

"When Tom looked at water, I'm not sure he ever saw it as water," says Lyle Woodcock. "He saw the reflected colors moving together. That's what he would draw."

Those rambling colors are what Benton put on canvas in a painting Woodcock commissioned, titled Ozark Reflections. The colors of tempera that mingle and the strokes that dance on that canvas remind us how well Benton melded post-impressionist expression to American scenes.

In the ebb and flow of liaisons among American artists, Benton did have many artist friends, including Jackson Pollock and Grant Wood.

But, according to Callison, Benton's wife, Rita, was the person who provided him with the solace he needed for his work.

Benton met Rita in New York in the early 1920s, and she coaxed him to establish a summer residence at Martha's Vineyard. "Rita promised to take care of everything - business, marketing," Callison says. "Tom had to focus only on his art."

Lyle Woodcock and his wife, Aileen, visited the Bentons on Martha's Vineyard. Woodcock says, "Rita would collect crabs for soup. And, we would be quiet. There was no conversation while Tom worked. Time to talk came after he closed his studio, and it started with Scotch."

For all of Benton's fascination with water, particularly the flowing waters of Missouri, he had some ambivalent feelings about the force that rivers wielded in people's lives.

According to Woodcock, "Tom hated the Hudson River. There were no rivers for Benton around New York. They were not pristine."

Benton's love of clear beautiful waterways does not, according to Rogers, make him a naturalist. "A naturalist is someone who spends a lot of time studying, looking for themes, patterns ... categorizing," says Rogers. "Benton's approach was more poetic. He was more interested in the aesthetic."

Although not strictly an environmentalist, Benton was a supporter of the Ozark streams "Tom was forward thinking," Callison says. "He tried to influence what was happening. And, he worked hard to stop a dam on Arkansas' Buffalo River."

It's difficult not to attribute some naturalist or environmentalist tendencies to a man who loved wild rivers and enjoyed them so much and who would write about them:

To get in a skiff and row out in the middle of one of these rivers on a summer night when the moon is full is to find all the spirit of Spenser and his 'faery lands forlorn.' Missouri's summer moon is big and white and cuts out vivid and clear edges, but this only intensifies the somber interior depths of the tree shadows and adds an air of impenetrable and silent mystery to them.

There is, over these summer night waters and on the shadowed lands that border them, an ineffable peace, an immense quiet, which puts all ambitious effort back in its futile place and makes of a simple drift of sense and feeling the ultimate and proper end of life.

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