NARRATOR: A man and a woman are finishing a frugal meal together. You can see there are only two plates on the table, an empty coffee cup, and a sugar bowl full of spoons. The couple may be poor, but they seem to have great dignity. Notice how their powerful, gnarled hands invoke a lifetime of hard work.
The painter, Thomas Hart Benton, knew these people. In real life they were deaf mutes who lived near him on Martha’s Vineyard. Here they become symbols of the old-fashioned rural values he championed. Benton was one of a group of painters in the thirties who turned their backs on the sophisticated world of cities. They embraced a nostalgic, idealized vision of a simpler life. Critics called them “American regionalists,” and Benton made no bones about preferring America to Europe: He once said, “I love America . . . It motivates me; it is a constant source of stimulation to my own activity. Its people and its way have values for me which are intensified year by year.”
Notice the sampler hanging on the wall behind the man’s head; you can make out part of a quote from the Bible. It says: “The Lord is my shepherd.” The man and his wife stand for faith, hard work, temperance, and endurance—the qualities Benton thought could save the country in troubled times.
Vlog: Thomas Hart Benton, The Lord is My Shepherd, 1926
This painting is by Thomas Hart Benton and is quite unique. It possesses many layers, and every time I look at it I notice something new. I also have a personal connection to this piece.
First, look at the couple’s hands…They are weathered by hard work. Notice the couple’s ears. The painting portrays only the right ear of the wife and only the left ear of the husband. Their ears are a focal point of the painting. Notice that while the couple is silent, the wife’s eyes are focused on her husband’s lips. This is because the couple is deaf.
In Martha’s Vineyard, many of the people who lived there were deaf, and many individuals knew and used sign language. This couple is one of them. So perhaps the artist’s purpose in emphasizing the large, prominent hands could be a reflection of America’s value in hard work. Or perhaps it is a symbol of the couple’s deafness and use of their hands to communicate via sign language.
Perhaps the ears are turned out to the viewer in representation of the couple deafness.
It is also interesting to notice the wall plaque behind the couple, which says “The Lord is My Shepherd”. Yet we can only see the words, “The Lord is h-e-r-d”. It makes you wonder what the artist was trying to say?
Does he mean the Lord is heard?
Is the couple somehow closer to the Lord because they are missing one sense? Are they less evil, so to speak? Or is it just coincidental that this part of the plaque is blocked from view?
There are so many layers to this painting… Every time you look at it you notice something new.