The beloved singer has been painting nearly all his life.
By LAURIE M. FISHER
Tony Bennett paints paradise. Sun-drenched rolling hillsides, century-old farmhouses, cypress and olive trees dot the Italian landscapes that inspire the visual artistry of the renowned singer.
"It's paradise," he said as he described the view from the veranda of the home of his friend conductor Zubin Mehta in Tuscany, Italy. "I paint from where you can see into infinity."
Nearly 40 of Bennett's watercolor and oil Italian landscapes will be exhibited from June 1 through July 22 at the Butler Institute of American Art's Trumbull branch at 9350 East Market Street in Howland. The exhibition, which captures scenes from Tuscany, Sicily, Rome, Venice and Florence, was gathered from private and public collections.
"It took centuries to create these scenes," Bennett said in an interview from his Manhattan home and studio. "The light is great, particularly at sunrise and sunset. The air has a faint odor of grapes and wine, very light and delicate like the rarest kind of perfume."
Bennett said he loves working outside. "I first sketch out a scene to see if it is a good composition. It's all instinct of what the eye sees," he said, although he noted that he has studied art all his life and paints every day.
Many of his landscapes are created with watercolor, which is more portable during his travels. If he has a scene he particularly likes, Bennett explained, he will create it in oil paints when he returns to his New York studio.
This is the second of Bennett's exhibitions at the Butler. The first show was in 1994. The artist donated a painting, "Homage to Hockney," to the museum's permanent collection in 1995.
Lifelong passion: Although Bennett is recognized internationally for his musical performances, his love of the visual arts dates back to his youth when he was known as Anthony Bennedetto. He first experimented with chalk drawings on the sidewalks of his hometown of Astoria, Queens. Bennett began his formal training as an art student at the School of Art and Design in Manhattan. Throughout his musical career, he continued to study in private studios and with successful artists including portrait painter Everett Raymond Kinstler.
He signs his work with the Bennedetto family name. In 1996 a book of his paintings, titled "Tony Bennett: What My Heart Has Seen," was published by Rizzoli International.
Butler executive director Lou Zona said he was familiar with Bennett's talents as a visual artist for years. In 1993, Zona heard Bennett being interviewed on a local radio talk show.
"I called into the show and invited Tony to the Butler to see our painting of one of his favorite artists, John Singer Sargent," Zona recalled, adding he knew of Bennett's penchant for visiting museums while traveling.
While at the museum, Bennett accepted Zona's invitation to exhibit of some of his works. Since then, Bennett's paintings have been shown at galleries and museums in England, San Francisco, New York, Boston and Naples, Florida.
Praise for work: "He is a natural landscape painter," Zona said. "Just as Bennett has admired Sargent 'because he didn't miss a thing,' the same holds true for Bennett's works," Zona observed. "He is able to translate the way the Southern European light hits the landscapes."
"He gives us a different perspective of a scene and changes the point of view. He looks up and down at the land, making it visually interesting," Zona added, characterizing the style as expressive, similar to impressionist paintings.
"Bennett is not afraid to let you see the brush strokes, which reveal that an artist had a personal hand in the creation," he said, explaining that the Butler Trumbull branch's natural light source will showcase the work.
Bennett doesn't abandon his other love, music, while he paints. He said he listens to all kinds of music from classical string quartets, to the jazz of Ella Fitzgerald and the music of his lifelong friend Frank Sinatra.
However, he said that his two artistic endeavors have notable differences. Throughout his singing career he has collaborated with other musicians. "You have to be an extrovert and blend with the group. It's a give and take."
"Painting is really private," he acknowledged. "You do your own editing."
Milestone: Reaching his 75th birthday and being recognized for both of his creative pursuits is a significant milestone, Bennett acknowledged.
"It's always wonderful to be respected and appreciated," he said. "When you perform, you don't wait for approval; the artist knows first, then the musician knows and then the audience. With painting you need to wait two or three days after the work is done. You have to step away."
Since Bennett travels frequently, he is able to put his paintings aside for several days at a time and assess his work upon his return. "Sometimes I'll go away and look at it and say 'it's not that bad,'" he said with a laugh.
"I've been painting all my life," he noted, adding that he is as passionate about his art as his musical performances. "I have had very good teachers. They taught me well. All of a sudden the painting is taking off. It is very encouraging."
XAn artist's reception and Butler members-only event will be June 27 and 28 at the Trumbull branch. The work will be on display from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is free. For more information about the member's event call the Butler at (330) 743-1711.