An ear for music, an eye for art

Singer Tony Bennett brings his accomplished paintings to The Art Students League.

At The Art Students League of New York in Manhattan, teachers and students of all ages wear their passion for art emblazoned on their paint-splattered smocks as they bustle to class past an exhibit of paintings and drawings by one Anthony Benedetto.

The 29 works include portraits as well as landscapes of places around the world — Venice, Puerto Rico and Estoril, Portugal, to name a few — that evoke such artists as Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and Claude Monet, particularly in their creation of light-dappled colors.

It’s not, however, until you get to the insightful portraits of the celebrated — a pensive Duke Ellington here, a commanding Lady Gaga there — that you realize that Benedetto is an artist with an unusual day job:  He’s the legendary singer Tony Bennett, whose alter ego is on display at the league’s American Fine Arts Society Gallery through Jan. 11 in the show “The Art of Tony Bennett/Anthony Benedetto.”

We first interviewed Bennett in the 1990s about his musical career and discovered he has not only an ear and a voice for music but an eye and a hand for art, too. He told us then that Frank Sinatra, a devoted Sunday afternoon plein air painter, suggested he take up watercolors as a way to pass the time on the road. Bennett soon developed into a serious painter.

For many years, the ever-gracious performer would send us Christmas cards of his paintings. (We still have them.) Eventually, the cards stopped, but we would see him occasionally at the press previews for exhibits at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where his painting of Abraham Lincoln against the backdrop of an American flag hung in the office of Harold Holzer, then The Met’s senior vice president of external affairs, who is also a Lincoln scholar with many books to his credit and a Rye resident.

It was through Holzer that Bennett met Frank L. Porcu, an instructor in anatomy, drawing, sculpture and painting at the 145-year-old league where he’s brought back the study of the antique with the second-floor Antique Cast Wall that includes a full-blown reproduction of Donatello’s sensuous sculpture “David.” (He also lectures on stereoscopic anatomy at Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons.)

“We kind of migrated toward each other and talked about painting,” Porcu recalls as we sit in another gallery. He was impressed by how much Bennett knew about art, but the singer, who has a studio and an apartment in Manhattan, was hungry for more. So Porcu invited him to his Friday night classes. Though he prepared the other students for a special visitor, they greeted Bennett with the same open-heartedness with which the singer meets his fans and the press. 

“Celebrities come in and out,” Porcu adds. “That’s what’s great about this place. We’re more interested in what you are in real life. We judge you as an equal.”

Porcu conducts his classes — in which students work from live models — like a doctor on rounds. He picks five students to critique. The class follows him from easel to easel. Soon Bennett’s strengths became apparent to all, including “ a versatility and an ability to divorce himself from his ego and look with new eyes.”

One day Bennett told Porcu that he not only wanted to sculpt but that he wanted to sculpt his friend, Harry Belafonte. He even brought Belafonte to class.

The result is a bust that brings out Bennett’s affection for his fellow performer, as do his painted portraits of Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. They, along with one of his paintings of Central Park, are now part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., courtesy of Bennett, says exhibit curator Genevieve Martin, the league’s director of external affairs.

“To be relentlessly pursuing his artistic skills is motivation for all people,” she says. “He never stops learning.”

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