Benson’s “Firelight” to be Auctioned

Frank W. Benson

signed and dated ‘F.W. Benson ’93’ (lower left)
oil on canvas
40 x 30 in. (101.6 x 76.2 cm.)
Painted in 1893.

Noted newscaster Barbara Walters bought this beautiful painting by Frank W. Benson many years ago.  In November, 2023 it will be put up for auction.  Firelight is one of Benson’s famed interiors of lovely young women, dressed in elegant gowns and lit by the mellow, muted effects of light thrown by the flickering flames of a fire or the gentle glow of an oil lamp.  Dubbed his “Firelight paintings,” by Faith Andrews Bedford, there are only four known to exist.  This was the final painting.  This essay was written by Mrs. Andrews Bedford for Bonhams in New York City.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1862, Frank Weston Benson was descended from a long line of sea captains. By the time he was born in the large Benson home on Salem’s historic Washington Square, they had filled it with exotic treasures from the China trade. Oriental scrolls and screens lined the walls, silks in intricate patterns shimmered, tall vases stood in corners, reflecting the light from fireplaces, candles, oil lamps or the tall windows that overlooked Washington Square.

The five Benson children grew up surrounded by color and pattern, design and detail, the elegance of furniture handed down through the generations and, most of all, light.  Their evenings were illuminated by the soft glow of candles and gaslight. Sunlight sparkled off the waters of Salem harbor and marshes of nearby Essex County where they hiked and observed the many birds that filled the sky with graceful patterns.  Benson filled his sketchbooks with drawings of them. His accomplished painting of these birds encouraged his parents to send him to Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts.  There he studied from 1880 to 1883 with a group long considered the school’s “banner class.”  Robert Reid, became a fellow member of the group of American painters later known as “The Ten.” Edmund Tarbell, became Benson’s closest friend and shared not only a studio but the directorship of the school itself. With them, Benson visited numerous galleries and private collections. 

For his twenty-first birthday, Benson’s parents gave him one thousand dollars along with strict instructions to come home when the money ran out.  He and his fellow art student, Joseph Lindon Smith, sailed to Paris and quickly enrolled at the Academie Julian where they studied under Gustave Boulanger and JulesJoseph Lefebvre. Afternoons were spent at the Louvre as well as at various small galleries and paint supply stores where the works of the Impressionists were often hung. The two undoubtedly carefully studied their high-keyed palette, broken brush strokes, and loose handling of paint.  The frugal friends managed to make their money last through two years at the Academie as well as a summer in Brittany at the seaside art colony of Concarneau.  In Benson’s summer painting, After the Storm, one can see his mastery of light upon the water. It was accepted for exhibition by the Royal Academy in London.

Returning home to Salem in 1885, Benson set up a studio and began painting portraits – a time honored way for young artists to gain commissions. Of his oil of Joseph Lindon Smith, which Benson hung at his first exhibition in Boston, a reviewer wrote that it had, “a good deal of life and character.” For his first show at the National Academy of Design in New York, Benson chose Moonlight, a painting from Concarneau.  It garnered for him not only his first sale in that city, but also excellent reviews. “A capital performance,” wrote one reviewer. “The sense of unresting waters is prettily conveyed without leaving an impression of a noisy or busy picture.”

Benson’s growing reputation quickly drew the attention of the trustees of the Portland Society of Art who, in 1887, hired him to teach for two years. It was no surprise when, just a year after marrying a childhood friend, Ellen Peirson, he was hired as an instructor at the Museum School in Boston in 1889.  The previous year he had found a studio in the large building at 145 Dartmouth Street where Edmund Tarbell and Dennis Bunker were already working.  It was here that Benson began painting studio works of lovely young women in elegant gowns lit by the mellow, muted effects of light thrown by the flickering flames of a fire or the gentle glow of an oil lamp.  These paintings earned for him not only some of his earliest praise but also his earliest awards.

While many of Boston’s artists hired professional models, at this early point in his career Benson was delighted when his sisters offered to sit for him. His paintings of Georgianna and Elisabeth were not portraits but likenesses. Like Abbot Handerson Thayer, who was an early mentor, Benson transformed the women in his family into an ideal. As his eldest daughter Eleanor, who was his most frequent model, wistfully recalled, “He always made us far more beautiful than we were.”

The first of these dramatic paintings, By Firelight, was a study of his sister Elisabeth gazing into a fireplace that is surrounded by objects d’art all illuminated by the flickering firelight.  Painted in 1889, it underscores the sense that these works were part portrait and part still life.  The compositional elements provided by the Oriental ginger jar, urns, and a woodblock print underscore Benson’s comment decades later that, “Picture making has become to me merely the arrangement of design within the frame.  It has nothing to do with the painting of objects or the representation of nature. . .” The exotic tiger-skin rug beneath Elisabeth’s chair may well have been what inspired Mrs. P.T. Barnum to buy it.

Twilight, Benson’s second “firelight painting,” was completed in 1891 shortly after Benson moved into a larger space at the Harcourt Studios a short walk from the Museum School. In this prize-winning oil, Georgiana, in white, and Elisabeth, in black, sit on an antique settee. The composition includes a table with a floral arrangement in a porcelain vase, a chair, a music stand and a partly hidden lamp which, along with the unseen fireplace, casts a warm glow on the sitters.

Although portraits were his mainstay, Benson looked forward to his time doing creative work such as his third foray into capturing the effects of light. Lamplight is, once again, a painting of two young women one dressed in black and one in white. The deep, rich gold of the reflected lamplight bathes the entire left half of the painting and is echoed in the shimmering oriental screen.  As the light fades toward the middle of the canvas, the shadows deepen and the skirt of Georgiana’s black dress dissolves into shadow.  Standing against the foil of mellow gold and velvet black, her shawl and hair ribbon make bright splashes of vermilion. Oddly, although a fireplace is shown, no flickering flames are seen. As though arranging scenery on a stage, Benson placed a wooden table in front of a golden screen. On it is a flower arrangement in a porcelain jar. A painting hangs above the mantle and two chairs are partially visible.  The figure in the background is an enigma.  Dressed in white, the model sits with her back to us. Her face is not visible; one hand is poorly done.  It could well be that Benson did not use a model at all but tried to recreate his little sister from memory. Elisabeth had died shortly after Twilight was completed.

Firelight, the final canvas of Benson’s firelight paintings, is the capstone to this studio series. In it, Benson seems to distil all that he learned while creating the previous three. The similarities are many; the differences are subtle. In Firelight, the light from the fire is not intense like that seen in By Firelight.  There is no glow of lamplight.  Georgianna, her hand outstretched to enjoy the gentle warmth of an unseen fire, is centered on the canvas. While the fire casts a subtle glow on the antique corner chair and a tall, green urn, it is the beautiful handling of light on the model’s dress that captures the viewer’s attention. The warm glow of the fire suffuses the right portion of the canvas and touches the dress and Georgianna’s face with glimmers of gold and opalescent color.   Benson depicts the delicate texture of the fabric by interweaving broken, barely discernible brushstrokes of varied tones of cream and ivory, blue and yellow. A review of Benson’s known portraits and studio pieces reveal that he overwhelmingly asked clients or models to wear white, the better to allow him to use the deceptive simplicity of white to demonstrate his mastery of the qualities of light and color.

Although Firelight won first prize at the Cleveland Art Association, it was at the Chicago Art Institute exhibition of 1894 that it garnered effusive praise.  A discussion of the exhibition was offered in a small pamphlet titled “Impressions on Impressionism.” The commentators were novelist Hamlin Garland, “Brush and Pencil” editor Charles Francis Browne and Lorado Taft, a sculptor.  All were active in a Chicago-based arts organization, the Central Art Association.  When the three stood in front of Firelight, which had won the Ellsworth prize, their comments continued for three full paragraphs. Garland was the first to opine, “It is masterly. I don’t know of anything finer in the way of firelight. See the simplicity of his method. That hand and arm is painted with three broad strokes of the brush, but it takes genius to do that.” “Look at those mellow shadows,” exclaimed Taft.  “See how it is done! See your effect of firelight now.  Look at that arm. A stripe of pure vermilion and then next to it one of clean, vivid blue, and then this mass of transparent shadow.  You step back three steps, and they blend into the tenderest gradations, but preserve a purity that you don’t see once a year in a painting.”

It is interesting to note that, in Firelight, Benson has used only two accessories, a tall vase and an antique corner chair. The painting has a spare composition and is a departure from his penchant for including numerous accessories or props that reflect the popular Colonial Revival movement, his own Salem upbringing in a house full of decorative arts and his strong interest in art from the Orient.

Henry Fitz Gilbert Waters, a close family friend and neighbor in Salem and one of this country’s first collectors of American antiques, was an early mentor.  The first piece of furniture the Bensons bought as newlyweds was an antique sideboard. As Benson wrote Waters, “I have bought most of my furniture piece by piece to fit the rooms and quite a lot of it is old—I dislike so much any sets of [new] furniture that I could afford to buy that I furnished with old whenever I could find what I wanted at reasonable prices.”

Brass candlesticks and fire tools, silver mirrors, and porcelains, shimmering fabric and highly polished furniture all allowed him to display his mastery of light and reflection.   For decades, many of the objects in these paintings found their way into Benson’s other interiors with figures and still lifes.  The corner chair half hidden behind Georgianna’s skirt in Lamplight becomes her seat in Firelight and later appears in Benson’s 1899 portrait of Marjorie, the four-year-old daughter of Henry Westinghouse, who traveled to Benson’s studio from his home in Pittsburg. The porcelain vase in Firelight is later used in The Artist’s Daughters, a studio work from 1906.

Firelight and its related paintings were but a brief coda in a long and illustrious career. Many years after Benson created it, while teaching his daughter Eleanor to paint, Benson summed up his guiding principle, “I simply follow the light, where it comes from, where it goes.”

Faith Andrews Bedford, Copyright 2023