The Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton, like John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood, consciously rejected abstraction in the 1920s and 1930s and developed a narrative style. His primary subject matter was American social history, and his art contained an element of nostalgia for the past. Benton was most noted for his murals, especially those depicting the history of his native Missouri in the state capitol building in Jefferson City. However, he also painted a series of portraits of old friends after World War II, which were intended to be exemplars of specifically American types. Thus Benton called his portrait of George A. Hough New England Editor. Benton had become friends with Hough on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, where both men spent many summers.
Hough worked in the newspaper business in New Bedford, Massachusetts, for fifty years, most of them as editor of The Evening Standard. He was known for his high ideals and abhorrence of injustice and was widely admired for his editing skills and for his mentoring of young newspapermen and women. Benton painted New England Editor with his typical sharp definition and sinuous line. He depicted the newspaperman sitting at a table writing the word "unless" on a paper. Hough was known to proclaim that unless a story was correct, it would not be printed in his newspaper and unless the reporter had exhausted all possible sources, he wasn't ready to hand in a story. Behind Hough is a painting of the boat Catalpa that did in fact hang in the library of Hough's house on Martha's Vineyard. The Catalpa was a New Bedford whaling ship captained by Hough's close friend George S. Anthony. In 1876 Captain Anthony rescued a number of Irish revolutionaries from the British off the coast of Australia. Benton probably included the painting because New Bedford was associated with whaling and because the principled stand taken by Captain Anthony was also typical of the character of George Hough. Benton wrote to the director of the MFA in 1947 that Hough "is one of the finest down to earth Yankees ever to come out of the soil, sharp, witty and smart." Benton's rubbery style captured perfectly the dynamism of his friend in this vibrant portrait of an American life.
This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.