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Who’s that guy behind the wheel at the Huntington?

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When the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens opens its new Virginia Steele Scott Galleries for American Art on May 30, one of the new acquisitions on view will be ‘The Yankee Driver,’ a 1923 painting by Thomas Hart Benton. It’s a distinctive image — one of the types Benton chose to represent traditional values and rugged individualism.

But the crusty old guy at the wheel isn’t an invention, says Huntington curator Jessica Todd Smith. He is Billy Benson, a resident of Martha’s Vineyard, where the artist summered from 1920 until his death in 1975.

‘This fellow was an infamous character, a sort of handyman who did odd jobs around the property where Benton stayed,’ Smith says. ‘He was famous earlier in his life for stealing sheep and trying to poison his parents with arsenic. He seems to have cleaned up his act later in life, when this was painted.’

‘Benton always plays with perspective,’ she says, ‘and you often see this tipped-up background in his work. Here, it’s almost a promontory, like the end of the island. I think it’s very evocative.’

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The painting, purchased by the Huntington’s art collectors’ council, will be displayed with works by John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood and Roger Medearis in a gallery of mid-20th century modernism and regionalism.

— Suzanne Muchnic


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