Frank Weston Benson
(1862 - 1951)

Benson's Museum School class, c. l882. Benson, in a straw hat, is standing second from the right.

Frank Weston Benson's masterpiece paintings of American society at the turn of the century are some of America's most popular works of art. Born in Salem, Massachusetts, a descendant of a long line of sea captains, Benson first studied art at Boston's Museum School where he became editor of the student magazine.

After the Storm, 1884. Oil on canvas, 40 x 58". Private collection. Although this student work by Benson was not accepted at the famed Salon Exhibition in Paris, it hung at the Royal Academy in the spring of 1895.

In 1883, Benson enrolled at the Académie Julian in Paris where artists such as Bouguereau, Lefebvre, Constant, Doucet and Boulanger taught students from all over Europe and America. It was Boulanger who gave Benson his highest commendation. "Young man," he said, "Your career is in your hands . . . you will do very well." Benson's parents gave him a present of one thousand dollars a twenty-first birthday and told him to return home when it ran out. The money lasted long enough to provide Benson with two years of schooling in Paris, a summer at the seaside village of Concarneau in Brittany and travel in England where his painting, After the Storm hung at the Royal Academy.

Portrait in White, l889. Oil on canvas. 48 l/8 x 38 l/4". The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gift of Sylvia P. Benson.

Upon returning to America, Benson opened a studio on Salem's Chestnut Street and began painting portraits of family and friends. An oil of his wife, Ellen Perry Peirson, dressed in her wedding gown is representative of this period. It demonstrates not only the academic techniques he learned at the Academie Julian but also his own growing emphasis on the effects of light. And yet, despite all the technical mastery displayed in the work, the painting exudes the warmth that existed between model and artist. More than a likeness, it is a study in serenity. Perhaps it was of a work such as this that Benson was thinking when he said, "The more a painter knows about his subject, the more he studies and understands it, the more the true nature of it is perceived by whoever looks at it, even though it is extremely subtle and not easy to see or understand. A painter must search deeply into the aspects of a subject, must know and understand it thoroughly before he can represent it well."

Following a brief stint as an instructor at the Portland, Maine, Society of Art, Benson was appointed as instructor of antique drawing at the Museum School in Boston in the spring of l889. Benson's long association with the school was particularly fruitful. Under the leadership of Edmund Tarbell and Benson the Museum School became a national and internationally recognized institution. The students won numerous prizes, enrollment tripled, a new school building was erected and visiting delegations from other schools sought the secret of their success. Benson cherished his role as teacher and was held in high esteem by his students, many of whom called him "Cher Maitre." Reminiscing about his long career with the school Benson once said, "I may have taught many students, but it was I who learned the most."

Firelight, l893. Oil on canvas, 40 x 30". This painting won the Ellsworth prize at the Art Institute of Chicago in l894 and the Cleveland Art Club Prize in l895.
In 1890, Benson won the Hallgarten Prize at the National Academy in New York. It was the first of a long series of awards, that earning for him the sobriquet "America's Most Medalled Painter." In the early years of his career, Benson's studio works were mostly portraits or paintings of figures set in richly appointed interiors. Young women in white stretch their hands out towards the glow of an unseen fire; girls converse on an antique settee in a room full of objets d'arts; his first daughter, Eleanor, poses with her cat. Works of this sort, together with a steady influx of portrait commissions, earned Benson both renown and financial rewards, yet it was in his outdoor works that gave Benson his greatest pleasure.

Autumn and Spring, l895. Oil on canvas, 30 x 25" (each painting). Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Bequest of Isaac C. Bates.
Beginning in 1889, Benson and his family spent his summers in Dublin, New Hampshire, a little summer colony at the foot of Mount Monadnock. Working under the influence of the Dublin artist Abbot Henderson Thayer, Benson's numerous works included, Summer, a painting posed for by his wife and the murals that he did for the Library of Congress. These ethereal works stand in marked contrast to Benson's later plein-air paintings of his daughters which were praised by contemporary reviewers for being the embodiment of the "fresh, appealing American girl." For the most part, Benson's outdoor paintings of the 1890s tended towards landscapes and marines. Only occasionally did he venture into figural work.

<em>The Sisters</em>
The Sisters, l899. Oil on canvas, 40 x 39 l/2". Terra Museum of Art. This painting was first exhibited at the Carnegie Institute in November of l899 where it immediately won its first prize: $l,000 and the Silver Medal for Painting.
In the latter half of the 1890s, Benson summered in Newcastle, on New Hampshire's short stretch of seacoast. It was here, in 1899, that Benson made his first foray into impressionism with Children in the Woods and The Sisters, the latter a sun-dappled study of his two youngest daughters, Sylvia and Elisabeth.

This painting was one of the first works that Benson hung at an exhibition with nine friends. The resignation of these ten illustrious artists rocked the American art establishment but, the catalogue for their first exhibition was titled, simply, "Ten American Painters." When, in 1898, the three Bostonians and seven New Yorkers began to exhibit their best work in exquisitely arranged small shows, the group (dubbed by newspapers, "The Ten" ) quickly became known as the American Impressionists, a bow to the style of their French predecessors. The Ten's annual shows soon became an eagerly awaited part of the annual exhibition calendar and were always well reviewed. Held annually in New York City, the group's yearly exhibitions usually traveled to Boston and were occasionally seen in other cities. Benson's association with other members of the group such as Childe Hassam, Thomas Dewing, William Merrit Chase and J. Alden Weir, only reinforced his growing emphasis on the tenets of Impressionism. As he later said to his daughter Eleanor, "I follow the light, where it comes from, where it goes."

Copyright © Faith Andrews Bedford, 1999. All Rights Reserved.