“An exhibition like this one is long overdue,” says Faith Andrews Bedford, Benson’s great-granddaughter and biographer, and co-curator for this exhibition. “Benson’s use of light was so superb in all media and motifs.”
Benson (1862-1951) came from a prosperous Salem, Massachusetts family and was later trained at the Academie Julian in Paris. Deeply influenced by seventeenth-century masters such as Vermeer and Velazquez, he became a leader of an important group of painters known as the Boston School. Benson and fellow Boston School artists like Edmund Tarbell and Philip Hale brought European techniques of landscape and portrait painting to New England. Today he is recognized as one of America’s finest Impressionist painters.
“Frank Benson painted some of the most beautiful pictures ever executed by an American artist,” writes art historian William H. Gerdts in Ms. Andrews Bedford’s 1994 book Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist. "They are images alive with reflections of youth and optimism, projecting a way of life at once innocent and idealized and yet resonant with a sense of certain, selective realities of contemporary times.”
Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist is organized into four sections that explore subjects and themes that were central to his creative work: portraits, plein air works, interiors and still lifes, and outdoor scenes. In each of these periods, Benson was recognized as a master of the effects of light.
“Benson was a unique artist, in that he had mastered so many different mediums and subjects,” says Dean Lahikainen, curator for American Decorative Arts at the Peabody Essex Museum. “And from his early works right until the very end, light is what he was interested in. This exhibition will try to represent the full spectrum of his work.”
Benson’s early portraits were studies in the contrasts of light and shadow, often playing around the New England patricians who commissioned Benson to paint their portraits and those of their children. Portrait of a Boy (1896) displays the strong counterpoint of light and dark, a technique Benson had learned from the European masters while studying in Paris.
“The face dramatically lit against a dark background was very similar to Velazquez,” says Mr. Lahikainen. “Benson was a very good portraitist, especially in his characterization.”
Benson’s best-known work, though, comes from the time when he moved outdoors. His sun-drenched scenes of his wife and children along the picturesque coast of Maine were especially popular. My Daughter Elizabeth (c. 1915), from the Detroit Institute of Arts, shows the elegant, dark-haired, young woman sitting under subtle sunlight with the sea behind her. Such portraits reveal the relaxed, privileged life that Benson led, and display his amazing ability to capture the effects of sunlight. They earned Benson critical acclaim and became some of the most admired American paintings of the era. One contemporary critic wrote of the artist: “It is impossible to believe that mere paint, however clearly laid on, can glow and shimmer and sparkle as does that golden light on his canvas.”
The studio portraits present a contrast to those bright, outdoor scenes. The studio works are conveyed with a precision that revealed their primary aim—to win awards at the major art exhibitions of the day. Many combine graceful women in elegant dress with objets d’art, often illuminated by firelight or muted lamplight. The still lifes, such as The Silver Screen from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, portray harmonious arrangements of decorative art and everyday objects. “Don’t paint anything but the effect of light,” Benson once said, when addressing his approach to these interior scenes. “Don’t paint things.”
The technique worked, as the artist consistently took home top prizes at the large American exhibition. Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist will include several of these awards, along with his brushes and other tools to illustrate Benson’s popularity among his contemporaries.
Yet while he pleased many critics, Benson was highly conservative. He did not push past the boundaries of Impressionism and never experimented with Modernist innovations such as Expressionism, Cubism, or the Fauve movement. The historic Armory Show of 1913, which traveled to Boston, introduced many Americans to the leaders of post-Impressionism for the first time and marked a break in Benson’s career.
“The pretty, genteel life that Benson had depicted was criticized,” says Lahikainen. “Benson’s reaction was to turn to nature, and birds replaced the women and children as his objects of interest.”
The artist spent the last years of his long career prolifically recording birds and waterfowl in their element. Great White Herons (1933), from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, shows these graceful creatures in flight, the sunlight playing on their wide, white wings. Benson even managed to portray light in his etchings, with rich, velvety blacks, and mid-tones murky with the light of an approaching storm or the coming of dawn. These works earned him titles such as “dean of American etchers,” and “master of the sporting print.”
“When he later turned his interest to etchings, the subtle light of candle, moonlight, dawn and dusk, were all effectively shown in black and white,” says Ms. Andrews-Bedford. “The term painter-etcher was an oft-used and apt description of Benson.”
Some of the paintings in Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist will be taken from America’s leading museums and private collections, and many will be displayed to the public for the first time. They will complement works from the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, where Benson was a trustee. In all, the exhibition includes 77 oil paintings, watercolors, etchings, and lithographs.