KANSAS CITY, Mo. – An extraordinary collection of works by American Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) will be offered at Circle Auction on Saturday, December 2. Featuring more than 110 paintings and works on paper, the Campanella collection is the most extensive single-owner collection of Benton’s artworks outside the Benton Trust. Absentee and Internet live bidding will be available through LiveAuctioneers.
It was assembled by Vincent Campanella (1915-2001), a fellow artist who had an on-again, off-again relationship with the man that spanned about 25 years. Campanella was among the most memorable and compelling interviewees in Ken Burns’s 1989 documentary on Thomas Hart Benton, unafraid to criticize him and nonetheless moved to tears at the memory of his death.
Campanella, a New York City native and an art prodigy in his youth, met Benton after moving to Kansas City to teach in 1949, at the age of 35. Benton, then 60, was well-established and very much a celebrity in Kansas City, though the New York art world had moved on from his beloved Regionalism to the distinctly non-figurative art form of Abstract Impressionism.
Benton and Campanella’s friendship suffered a blow in April 1951, when both appeared on a Kansas City panel discussion of Modern art. According to observers, the event quickly narrowed to a dialog between the two in which Campanella defended the art movement, ably holding his own against Benton. This annoyed the older man so much that he stopped speaking to Campanella, only to resume the relationship in 1973 as if nothing had happened. When Benton died two years later, leaving unfinished his last work, a mural commission for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, Benton’s widow asked Campanella to complete it. He agreed, and it is possible that he accepted some of the pieces in the auction in exchange for helping finish his friend’s final masterpiece; it is believed that Campanella acquired most, if not all of the works, during the 1970s. (Campanella also evidently rescued the artist from posthumous ignominy by adding two strings to an instrument that Benton had depicted with four.)
Benton scholar Henry Adams said of the Campanella collection that it is “Not strictly a connoisseur’s collection, since the works vary greatly in finish and even in quality, it reveals instead an artist’s interest in Benton’s working methods, and in the nature of his artistic development. It provides an extraordinary picture of Benton’s development, as well as a record of one of his most intriguing friendships.” In 2001, perhaps before his death on December 23 of that year, Campanella and his family sold the collection to the consignor.
Earning the highest estimate among the lots in the auction is Character Study of an Old Woman, a 1926 oil on canvas whose sitter is unidentified, but who might be one of Benton’s neighbors on Martha’s Vineyard, the island off Massachusetts where he spent his summers. It carries an estimate of $30,000-$60,000.
Also featured is an oil and gouache on board study of the Teton mountain range for his 1955-1960 painting The Sheepherder, estimated at $20,000-$30,000. The lot notes quote Benton’s daughter Jessie’s memory of watching him struggle with the task: “He took aside many years to paint mountains. He said it was the damnedest hardest thing he ever did, that mountains are impossible to paint. It took him years to finally paint a picture that he was satisfied with. But you know that’s why he paid no attention to all those critics. He would get these things that he had to do, and while they were still quibbling over Persephone, he was off in Wyoming trying to paint the Tetons. Off in the woods in Jackson Hole driving around by himself for years.”