Many recording artists paint, more or less as a hobby. But for Tony Bennett, painting has become a bona fide second career.
His paintings have been exhibited in prestigious galleries throughout the world, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., which recently accepted his oil painting “Central Park” for its permanent collection. His “Homage to Hockney” is likewise on permanent display at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, as is “Boy on Sailboat, Sydney Bay” at the National Arts Club in New York.
The official artist of the 2001 Kentucky Derby, Bennett also has been commissioned by the United Nations, in commemoration of its 50th anniversary. And he is the author of “Tony Bennett: What My Heart Has Seen,” a bound volume of his paintings that Rizzoli published in 1996. A new volume of his art work will be published next year.
Painting has always been a passion for Bennett, going back to his attendance at Manhattan’s High School of Industrial Arts (now known as the High School of Art and Design). And he still paints daily, even while touring.
“It all goes hand in hand,” says Danny Bennett, his son and manager. “Tony is not a Sunday painter and never has been. And the same integrity that we apply to his music career, we do with his art: We’re very, very careful.”
He cites the Smithsonian’s embrace of “Central Park” as a high-water mark for his father, who signs his paintings with his birth name, Anthony Benedetto.
“His ambition is to be known as a painter as well as a musician, and he will be, I think, in his lifetime, because he’s as serious about art as he is music,” says Danny Bennett. “He doesn’t want to make wallpaper or Jerry Garcia ties.”
Tony Bennett’s love and passion for painting is “growing exponentially,” his son adds. He notes that his father’s paintings steadily “sell over the years.”
“It seems understated at times,” he continues, “but here’s a guy who has painted his whole life. We’ve set up a network of galleries that he sells in, and it works out well. We’ve made a balance between art and commerce, so that it’s not so accessible that you can find it at McDonald’s -- which we easily could have done.”
‘What you are is a work of art’When lithographs are made of Tony Bennett’s paintings, they are done in very limited editions to preserve and increase their future value.
“We’re very specific that way,” Danny Bennett says of the strategy. “It’s about nurturing: There are Tony Bennett fans who buy his artwork, but there are art connoisseurs now who buy Anthony Benedetto paintings. He certainly makes money painting, but he could probably make a lot more if he did it the way most people do, by cranking it out. But it’s not about the money.”
Indeed, Tony Bennett is a “tremendous editor” of his work, Danny Bennett says. “Every six months he goes through his recent work and keeps what he likes and destroys the rest. But he paints all the time: watercolors on the road, and then he comes back and turns them into oil paintings.”
Such diligence is lauded by Everett Raymond Kinstler, one of America’s great portrait artists, who is the same age as Bennett and also attended the High School of Industrial Arts.
“He’s very dedicated and sincere, and is always striving to get better. And that’s why he has,” says Kinstler, whose painting of his friend is part of his current New York Creative exhibition of portraits of cultural luminaries at the Museum of the City of New York. (The Smithsonian owns a Kinstler charcoal of Bennett.)
“I’ve said to him, ’Think of it as music, and do it the way you sing,’ and he’s become a unique artist through his sensitivity and great range of interpretation.”
Harold Holzer, senior vice president for external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, considers Bennett “a wonderful artist, modern and classical at the same time. But everything about him is artistic.”
Holzer is the author of “Lincoln on Democracy,” which he co-edited with Mario Cuomo. The book is graced with a Bennett cover painting. He hosted an evening with Bennett at the Met last year.
“He showed slides of his paintings and talked about how art had inspired him, and when he was finished I said, ’After listening to you for an hour, there’s only one way to describe you — not as a singer or a painter, because what you are is a work of art.’ And that’s what he is.”