Josie West portrait
Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975)
Oil and tempera on Masonite
Bequest of the artist
Renowned American painter Thomas Hart Benton spent more than fifty summers in Chilmark. His experience on Martha's Vineyard helped shape his artistic vision and consequently the history of art in twentieth-century America. Island settings and people appeared in his paintings throughout his career. He even credited the impact of the Vineyard by noting, "It was in Martha's Vineyard that I first really began my intimate study of the American environment and its people."
Despite Benton's expressed contempt for museums, he bequeathed two paintings to the Museum, both portraits of Vineyarders. One was local legend and schooner captain Zeb Tilton, and the other was Josie West.
Josie West (1861–1945) was one of the Bentons' neighbors. West lived his whole life in Chilmark, where he worked as a farmer. He was deaf, as were other members of his family. They belonged to a community with a high percentage of deaf residents that attracted the attention in the late 1800s of Alexander Graham Bell, who studied the prevalence of hereditary deafness in the small town where "everyone spoke sign language."