Published: October 10, 2000
SALEM, MASS. – The Peabody Essex Museum scored a major coup with “The Art of Frank Benson, American Impressionist.” The exhibition includes some beautiful Impressionist works depicting patrician life that conform to public expectations for works by Frank W. Benson (1862-1951).
Other works display aspects of Benson’s ouevre that have not been viewed by the public for 60 years. Catalog essays by guest curator Faith Andrews Bedford and co-curator Dean Lahikainen, curator of American decorative arts, also provide fresh, insightful perspectives on Benson’s goals, inspirations, and paintings. Visitors will enjoy a beautiful show while gaining a broader and deeper appreciation for Benson’s work.
The teenage Frank Benson aspired to be an ornithological illustrator, and he pursued that career by attending the Museum School at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1880-1883). Following graduation, Benson traveled to Paris, where he studied at the Acadèmie Julian (1883-1885). When he returned to America, he opened a portrait studio in Boston. The full blossom of Benson’s career coincided with rebellion within the traditional Society of American Artists. Benson and nine like-minded artists created The Ten American Painters (now recalled as The Ten) that held an annual exhibition starting in 1898. Benson later became America’s most important sporting artist and revived American interest in etching.
Curator Lahikainen recalled, “When we looked at the works we had selected for exhibition, the obvious central theme was that Benson always painted light. This can be seen in the paintings themselves, and also in the quotes that his daughter, Eleanor recorded as her father instructed her about painting. Her notes are full of his advice dealing with light such as ‘Follow the light, where it comes from and where it goes.’ Benson was a master of painting light rather than objects.”
Visitors will enjoy observing the range of technical challenges that Benson pursued. Groups of related paintings hanging in proximity to each other induce viewers to compare and contrast; they soon become aware of fundamental differences within a group. For example, among the plein air paintings, “Study of a Young Girl with a Veil” is the only work with a veiled model. One quickly realizes that painting a face through a veil presents a host of technical problems and marvels at the effective solution the Benson devised. Observant visitors soon discover that part of Benson’s joy in painting came from creating challenging problems and then devising clever solutions.
At the prime of his career, Benson’s national reputation was largely based upon his body of plein air works. The group of eight plein air paintings in this exhibit is the largest assembly of such works since World War II. Their palettes include four works having high-keyed colors, two works utilizing middle tones, and two works using low-keyed colors. These works are excellent and interesting examples of American Impressionism.
Benson’s plein air paintings usually include models – particularly his daughters and their friends – but they are atmospheric paintings, not portraits. Benson painted light to express the atmosphere of the New England coast and the experience of young people in natural settings. The models are props that served as a basis for Benson to paint light.
From 1898 to 1918, The Ten presented an annual exhibit of their works, and Benson often featured his plein air works in that show. Other members of the group were Edmund Tarbell, Joseph De Camp, Childe Hassam, Robert Reid, J. Alden Weir, John Twachtman, Willard Metcalf, Thomas Dewing, and Edward Simmons.
Two qualities that separate Benson’s work from that of his American contemporaries are the motion and spontaneity of his figures. For example, in “Child in Sunlight” the viewer is tempted to reach and assist the toddler as she pitches forward trying to climb the coastal hill. The viewer senses that the three models in “Girls in the Garden” are spontaneously working as their hands prune, pick and sort flowers. The viewer intuitively experiences the gust the pulls the veil to the right in “Study for Young Girl with a Veil.” In contrast, other American Impressionists rendering similar settings often used stationary figures.
Benson’s initial period of plein air painting occurred during the summers of 1889 to 1892 in Dublin, N.H. That was followed with summers in New Castle, N.H. from 1893 to 1899, and Ogunquit, Me. in 1900. In 1901, Benson purchased the Wooster farm in North Haven, Me., and that became his primary location for plein air oil painting.
Studies and Divided Pictures
Benson often painted the same scene in three different types of works, and examples of all three types are displayed at this exhibit. After having painted an oil study and a major painting, Benson sometimes painted smaller works with details of the major painting. The artist’s great granddaughter Faith Andrews Bedford wrote a 1995 article in American Art Review about these “divided paintings.” She stated, “With few exceptions, no other American painter of Benson’s time was known to have employed this technique, nor was it found commonly among the European artists of the day.”
Bedford wrote, “Given strong historical documentation, close comparisons of the paintings, conversations with family members, and letters regarding the works, it appears that with one exception, Benson created his large groupings first, then copied the individual figures into separate finished paintings.”
One of the divided pictures, “In Summer” is exhibited in this show. This work is closely related to his painting “Summer, 1909” at the Rhode Island School of Design that depicts four young ladies on a seaside cliff. Writing about the relationship between these paintings, Bedford commented, “After Benson completed ‘Summer,’ Elisabeth and Anna, the two figures on the left, became the central focus of ‘In Summer.’ On a canvas nearly as tall as the original work, Benson exhibits a tighter composition and a more finished treatment of the two girls. Benson made subtle changes in the smaller work…and provided a greater sense of rapport with the sitters.”
Antiques In Benson Interiors
From an antiquarian perspective, the most interesting element of this show was the discovery by curator Dean Lahikainen that Benson was an antiques collector, and that his interiors were composed with a sensitivity to antiques. Many New England artists who were active during the Colonial Revival period painted early interiors. These artists routinely showed early architecture and objects, but with a Victorian excess.
A typical painting of the era was Frank Shapleigh’s (American, 1842-1906) rendering of the sitting room of the John Alden house. Period antiques sat on the mantel, but they were massed in the manner of Victorian clutter. In contrast, Benson’s interior paintings show early Twentieth Century interiors decorated sparsely with early antiques.
Frank Benson led a charmed life, and one lucky coincidence was that his boyhood neighbor was one of the first scholars of American decorative arts. Curator Lahikainen discovered that Henry Fitz Gilbert Waters was a valued mentor who often tutored the Benson children in the evening. Waters packed his large house with Salem and Boston antiques before the antiques craze triggered the bicentennial celebration. That craze induced all the leading architects of the Colonial Revival style to take Salem field trips, and eventually they all sought the advice of Henry Waters.
Waters also tutored other local families, such the Littles who summered in Swampscott. Their sons, Arthur, Philip, and David Mason Little, also developed a keen interest in antiques. David Mason Little passed that interest along to his son Bertram Little who became a rather distinguished collector in his own right.
Late in his career, Frank Benson returned his boyhood interest in ornithological illustration. Following the 1913 Amory Show many artists stampeded to join the new “isms,” but Benson quietly moved to revolutionize the field of American sporting art. His rendering of wildlife, hunting, fishing, and camping infused the field with a heightened artistic sensitivity, and reinvigorated a tradition-burdened field.
Historical accounts indicate that Benson’s teenage bird studies were extremely realistic. We can infer that they were similar to works by Alexander Pope (American, 1849-1924) and Louis Agassiz Fuertes (American, 1874-1927). Those painters concentrated on painting objects with precision. Each blue jay painted by Fuertes had exactly the same color tones and pattern. This is realism in the sense that twelve jays in a cage look precisely the same.
In contrast, Benson’s artistic training brought him to realize that a viewer’s experience of a jay’s appearance varies with the tint of light cast by the sky, whether the jay is front lit or backlit, and the background. Furthermore, Benson realized that we did not perceive the precise feather pattern of a bird at a distance of 20 feet. Benson had learned that our eyes perceive light, not objects, and he introduced that realization into the sporting art field. Other artists such as Roland Clark, A. L. Ripley, and Richard Bishop quickly followed his lead.
The most unanticipated – and therefore the most surprising – works in the show are the large oil paintings of outdoor scenes. The public has never seen most of these privately owned masterpieces. “Hunter in a Boat, 1915” is a beautiful and moving work that captures the luminous glow of sunrise over a wave tossed sea with a single rower headed for the line of flight favored by passing sea ducks.
“Dory Fishermen, 1941” is a splendid high-keyed Impressionist painting in the manner of Monet. Seen in isolation this work would likely be classified as a plein air work. However, the figures in one dory are believed to be Frank Benson and his teen son George. Since George was a teenager around 1910, we can infer that to some extent this 1941 work was created as a recollection, perhaps with the aid of photographs. It shows them harvesting mackerel from weirs immediately off the Wooster farm.
Visitors who have traveled the Canadian coast from Northern New Brunswick, across Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula, and up to Labrador will immediately recognize the tinted glow Benson captured in “Twilight, 1930.” A lone figure stands in a canoe drifting in calm water that meanders through a mountainous landscape. The fisherman searches for a salmon pool into which he can cast.
Benson’s introduction to watercolors came in 1920 when he was almost 60 years old. At the prodding of his son, he took a set of watercolors on a salmon-fishing trip to Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula. He suddenly discovered that the medium was ideally suited to his sure, quick manner of painting and ideal for capturing light effects. Over the next three decades he completed over 600 watercolors.
Benson watercolors are seldom seen in the market and their exhibition in museums is limited. This show features 15 outstanding works. The public will appreciate their beauty and energy. Watercolor specialists will recognize his deft handling of the medium; they will be dazzled by two winter landscapes that make extensive use of the white of the paper. The interest aroused by the watercolors in this exhibit might possibly trigger a follow-up exhibit devoted exclusively to Benson watercolors.
Benson inscribed his first etching plate as a student at the Museum School, and he created his second etching in 1912 at the age of fifty. During the next three decades he created over three hundred etchings. Casual observers may think the subjects of his etchings are waterfowl, fishing, and canoeing, but a careful reading of Benson’s titles shows they often referred to light conditions. Some titles in this exhibition are “Morning Sunlight,” “Dusk,” and “After Sunset.” As in his other work, Benson strove to capture light effects, not specific objects. Six decades after he pulled his last etching, Benson continues to be regarded as one of America’s preeminent etchers.
Benson And The Federal Duck Stamp
The Federal Duck Stamp Program is considered one of the Twentieth Century’s most successful conservation programs. In addition to saving waterfowl species and habitat, it served as a model for hundreds of other conservation programs around the world. The program was the controversial brainchild of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jay “Ding” Darling. An avid duck hunter, Darling left journalism to serve as Chief of the Biological Survey with the hope that it was yet possible to conserve America’s radically declining waterfowl population. To fund needed conservation programs, Darling developed the duck stamp program, and he designed the first duck stamp.
In 1934 Darling recognized that the continuation of the duck stamp program required a change in the public perception that the stamp was on onerous, burdensome imposition of the New Deal. He also sought to sell the stamp to some people who were not duck hunters. In an effort to elevate the status of the embattled program, Darling asked Frank Benson, the nation’s foremost wildlife artist, to create the second duck stamp. Benson responded by etching a scene depicting a trio of canvasback drakes approaching splashdown.
That charitable act initiated an artistic tradition that has since become a cornerstone of the duck stamp program and all the derivative conservation programs. Benson’s cooperation with that fledging program accelerated the evolution of American sporting art.
The most common Benson works on the market are portraits. For 24 years from September through May, Benson’s life was centered in Boston, where he taught at the Museum School and maintained a painting studio whose mainstay was portraiture. Patrician clients filled his schedule. While he appreciated having a steady source of income, he found the experience repetitive and burdensome.
The best of Benson’s portraits are generally those that he gave as gifts and the sitters are relatives or friend. In these portraits Benson demonstrated an inspiration for creative painting. Often he borrowed from precedents painted by other artists. At this show there are examples the can be immediately linked to works by Vermeer, Copley, Sargent, and Hopper.
Peabody Essex Museum is at East India Square. The exhibition is on view through February 18, 2001. Hours are Tuesday to Saturday 10 am to 5 pm, Sunday noon to 5 pm. For information, 978/745-9500.
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