Discovering Denys Wortman

Last summer, not too long after the June 2015 of American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, I was sitting at my desk when the phone rang. To my utter disbelief, the caller ID said “Denys Wortman.” I was dumbfounded—and almost missed the call. I knew about this accomplished American artist and cartoonist Denys Wortman—and that he was a very close friend of Thomas Hart Benton. But I thought, could he possibly still be alive?? In fact, no, he could not, but… I picked up the phone and a friendly voice on the line,

“Hello, Austen, you don’t know me but I’m Denys Wortman,” to which I replied in confusion, “I do know Denys Wortman…the artist…” He laughed and said, “Oh, I’m his son, Denny!”

Thanks to Denny, I’ve learned so much more about the art of his father Denys Wortman (1887-1958) and his dad’s more than thirty-year friendship with Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), which took root in New York in the 1920s and flourished during their summers spent on Martha’s Vineyard. Denny grew up there and now lives with his wife Marilyn in his childhood home on the Vineyard.

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Left: Thomas Hart Benton, Denys Wortman Paints Thomas Hart Benton, oil on board, 1953, New Britain Museum of American Art. Right: Denys Wortman, Thomas Hart Benton Paints Denys Wortman, oil on board, 1953, New Britain Museum of American Art

I was familiar with the famous self-portraits the two artists painted of each other, now in the collection of the New Britain Museum of American Art. But I didn’t know about Wortman’s lush and colorful landscape paintings from the 1930s of Gay Head, now known as Aquinnah, or the depth and breadth of his cartoon work and astonishing skills as a draughtsman. Six days a week, from 1924-1954, he created a richly observed and vivid new drawing with a humorous caption for his “Metropolitan Movies” newspaper cartoon published in The World and The World-Telegram and Sun.

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Denys Wortman, Gay Head, oil on canvas, 1935

It has been a privilege to get to know and visit Denny and to see the paintings and drawings  by his dad that remain in his collection. The original cartoons from Wortman’s series about the life and times of “Mopey Dick and the Duke” possess an extraordinary immediacy and graphic energy. Wortman’s expressions of these two loveable hobo’s responses to American political culture really piqued my interest, because they are still funny and relevant, especially in this bizarre election year. Cartoons like “Before I listened to his speech I was awfully confused.  Now he’s made it perfectly clear why we shouldn’t vote for him.” Or “The way all these people want to get into the White House, you’d think they were being evicted.” This remarkable body of cartoon work was the subject of a major publication and exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York in 2010: Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait of The City in the 1930s and 1940s. And a significant trove of the original drawings is now in the collection of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont.

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Denys Wortman, “Before I listened to his speech I was awfully confused. Now he’s made it perfectly clear why we shouldn’t vote for him.” The World-Telegram and Sun, June 13, 1952

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Denys Wortman, “The way all these people want to get into the White House, you’d think they were being evicted.” The World-Telegram and Sun, June 7, 1952

Another cartoon in Denny’s collection has proved to be a thrilling discovery. It features a superb portrait drawing of none other than Thomas Hart Benton in his New York studio. Benton is standing next to one of his well-known history paintings—then in progress and now in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts: Brideship (Colonial Brides). Wortman’s cartoon, overlooked until now by Benton scholars—including me, provides the evidence to date Brideship specifically to 1929. Art historians had dated the work to about 1927-28, tying it to the time Benton abandoned his American Historical Epic mural series around 1928, for lack of support for the project. Published on October 25, 1929, Wortman’s cartoon indicates Benton’s ongoing efforts to creating stand-alone, modern history paintings. Wortman poked fun at Benton’s dedication to history painting,  and his friend’s commitment to debunking mainstream celebratory takes on American history. In Brideship, Benton sought to expose the brokering in 1620-21 of English maidens to the men of colonial Jamestown—not the sort of subject that the popular Colonial Revival movement of the day sought to revive! A somewhat deflated-looking Benton stands next to his large Brideship canvas, while a nosey, prospective patron, with a fox stole around her neck, patly examines the work and inquires, “Just when, Mr. Benton Do you put your soul in it.”

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Denys Wortman, “Just when, Mr. Benton, Do you put your soul in it.” New York World, October 25, 1929

The “discovery” of this cartoon is wonderfully serendipitous and exciting. It reminds us that there is always a broader range of evidence out there beyond conventional art historical sources to help us better document and understand an artist’s work and career from new perspectives. I am so grateful to Denny for his enthusiasm and generosity and for making these connections and discoveries possible—and I look forward to continuing to research Benton’s and Wortman’s art.

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Austen Bailly with Denys and Marilyn Wortman on Martha’s Vineyard, July 29, 2016.

Editor’s Note: Exploring Benton’s art and career from new perspectives was a driving force behind the exhibition American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, which closed its four-venue national tour this Labor Day at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI—after presentations at PEM, The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. In May 2016, American Epics received a 2015 Award for Excellence from the Association for Art Museum Curators.

3 Comments

  1. Vianna Heath says:

    How apt the cartoons truly are. “The more things change, the more they stay the same”. My father, from an old Yankee family, used to say that all the time. This article brought it to mind. So glad to see Denys Wortman’s work getting the attention it has long deserved.

  2. errol barron says:

    i was on that visitation to the wortman house. what a great experience to see the wonderful drawings and meet the wortmans. the feeling of good will and good fun is alive and well in that house no doubt in no small measure due to the spirit of the man who made all those hilarious and fantastically virtuosic drawings.

  3. Cath says:

    This is really interesting!!
    How could one increase the probability of discovering new points of view outside the traditional art historical sources? As wonderful as serendipity is it would be nice to harness chance to broaden and deepen the perspectives we can have of historic art objects. It seems like the Information Age we are living in is the perfect time to work out a method!!

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