Frank Weston Benson

Frank Weston Benson , frequently referred to as Frank W. Benson, (March 24, 1862 – November 15, 1951) was an American artist from Salem, Massachusetts known for his Realistic portraits, American Impressionist paintings, watercolors and etchings. He began his career painting portraits of distinguished families and murals for the Library of Congress. Some of his best known paintings (Eleanor, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Summer, Rhode Island School of Design Museum) depict his daughters outdoors at Benson 's summer home, Wooster Farm, on the island of North Haven, Maine. He also produced numerous oil, wash and watercolor paintings and etchings of wildfowl and landscapes.


In 1880, Benson began to study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston under Otto Grundmann, and in 1883 at the Académie Julian in Paris. He enjoyed a distinguished career as an instructor and department head at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He was a founding member of the Ten American painters, American Academy of Arts and Letters and The Guild of Boston Artists.


Frank Weston Benson was born to George Wiggin Benson, a successful cotton broker, and Elisabeth Poole, from families who founded Salem, Massachusetts. Benson obtained his appreciation of the sea from his grandfather, Captain Samuel Benson. When he was 12, he was given a sailboat in which he explored the waterways and marshes and raced against his siblings. To encourage educational activity, Benson's parents gave their children a weekly allowance to foster independent study and hobbies, such as Salem's Hamilton Hall dance classes, Lyceum lectures or equipment for photography. The children kept active roller-skating, tennis, ice-skating, boxing, fishing and hunting.


Benson's father gave him a shotgun and taught him how to hunt shore birds along the North Shore and wildfowl in the local fields and marshes. He spent nearly all of his weekends hunting or fishing in the fields, marshes and streams. To his good friend Dan Henderson, he wrote of their childhood adventures:


'We used to spend our Saturdays chasing coot and old squaws in Salem Harbor. Then, after working hard all day to get one bird, in we would assemble at Sam Shrum's or mine and chew the rag until we were so sleepy we could not hold up our heads. What a minute account each had to give of each movement of every bird seen and every shot missed. It was almost criminal to miss an easy shot in those days, so many excuses had to be invented. One word would have served for all in my case if it had been invented then, I was generally 'rattled,' I think, when you and I went ducking.'


His brother, John Prentiss Benson, was an architect and painter in his own right. Both sons may have been influenced by their mother, Elisabeth Poole Benson, who Frank once remarked, had 'a little room' on the top floor of their house where she would go to paint and 'forget about the rest of the world'. Artistic studies


An avid birdwatcher and wildfowl hunter, Benson wanted to be an ornithological illustrator. At the age of 16, he painted Rail, one of his first oil paintings, after a hunting trip. He began his studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1880, and there befriended Joseph Lindon Smith, Robert Reid and Edmund Charles Tarbell. Capitalizing on what he learned, Benson held drawing classes in Salem and painted landscapes during the summer of 1882.


On Benson 's 21st birthday his parents gave him a gift of $2,000 to study in Europe. He traveled to Paris and studied at the Académie Julian from 188to 188with Edmund Tarbell and Joseph Lindon Smith; Joseph Lindon Smith and Benson shared an apartment. At the Academy, Benson studied under Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, William Turner Dannat, and Gustave Boulanger. Gustave Boulanger, one of Benson 's teachers at Académie Julian, said to him: 'Young man, your career is in your hands... you will do very well.' After his study at Académie Julian, Benson traveled to England's Royal Academy to see his painting 'After the Storm' on exhibit.


Benson was 'deeply influenced' by Johannes Vermeer and Diego Velázquez, masters from the seventeenth-century. Vermeer painted few works during his lifetime, about 35-3paintings, but nearly each of them has become a masterpiece. The Dutch artist from Delft was astute in his depiction of light and 'poetic quality' of his subjects.


impressionism, particularly the work of Claude Monet, played a role in the development of Benson's own American Impressionistic style. He capitalized on Monet's color palette and brush strokes and keenly depicted 'reflected light', yet maintained some detail in the composition. Per Chambers, Benson represented American people with an 'ideal of grace, of dignity, of elegance.'


Benson 's watercolors reminded some critics of Winslow Homer's works.


Benson was not one to experiment with emerging art forms, like Cubism, Expressionism and Fauvism. As American impressionism extended to Post-Impressionism about 1913, Benson stayed with traditional genres and his American Impressionist style. As a result, 'The pretty, genteel life that Benson had depicted was criticized. Benson 's reaction was to turn to nature, and birds replaced the women and children as his objects of interest.' said Dean Lahikainen, curator of the Peabody Essex Museum. Marriage and children


In the summer Benson painted at Concarneau, along with Willard Metcalf and Edward Simmons. While there, Benson became engaged to the daughter of friends from Salem, Massachusetts, Ellen Perry Peirson. They married when Benson had established himself in his career and raised four children: Eleanor (born 1890), George (born 1891), Elisabeth (born 1892) and Sylvia (born 1898).


Benson became a Portland, Maine School of Art instructor in 1886. The spring ohe began teaching antique drawing at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and in 1890 became head of the Painting department. The school's reputation grew and its enrollment tripled under the leadership of Philip Hale, Benson and Edmund C. Tarbell. Students were assessed on the basis of their skill and placed at the appropriate level (from low to high): Hale had a class for beginners, Benson concentrated on how to depict figures while Tarbell covered still lifes. Benson, a favored instructor called 'Cher Maitre' ('Dear Master') by his students, taught until 1913.


William H. Gerdts, art historian, wrote of Benson 's work: 'Frank Benson painted some of the most beautiful pictures ever executed by an American artist. 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.' realism


Benson opened his first studio in Salem in 1886 with his friend, Phillip Little, and began painting portraits, an occupation in which Benson took seriously. He once 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.'


Benson took a Boston studio in 18with Edmund C. Tarbell. He gained favorable attention in his first showing at the Society of American Artists in New York, with a piece that suggested the influence of academic realism.


At the suggestion of his friend, Joseph Lindon Smith, Benson spent several summers in Dublin from 1889-1893, where he painted with and was influenced by Abbott Thayer. By the early 1890s he began using his family as subjects. Benson later recalled it was then that he realized design was the most important component of painting. Consequently, works of the period evidence a greater interest in and command of pattern, silhouette, and abstract design.


Portrait of Margaret Washburn, 1886, Private collection


Early Morning, 1899, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


The Graces: Thalia, mural, 1900, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.


It was only after joining the 'Ten American painters' that Benson shifted from the decorative painting of murals (for the Library of Congress) and allegories, to a genuine interest in plein-air impressionism.


Continuing a pattern that the Benson s would follow for years, the family left Boston during the summers. The family spent summers in New Castle, New Hampshire from 189to 1900, where Benson made some of his first Impressionist paintings, such as Children in the Woods and The Sisters. The popularity of The Sisters, a painting of daughters Elizabeth and Sylvia, won medals in expositions throughout the United States and in Paris, was a prelude to the successes of the next 20 years, when Benson became famous for a series of paintings of his family. After New Castle, the Benson s spent their summers on New Haven Island in Penobscot bay in Maine at Wooster Farm. Benson made Impressionist works of his family in earnest at Wooster Farm en plein air. The summer home afforded a great view of the bay and surrounding area. Near the house was an old orchard, large fields provided plenty of space for the children to play and for a garden, and the property stood beside a wooded area.


Like the French Impressionists, Benson focused on capturing light. To his daughter Eleanor he said, 'I follow the light, where it comes from, where it goes.' A critic said of Benson 's work: '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.'


Through his role as a teacher, work as an artist and affiliation with professional organizations for artists, Benson was a leader in American impressionism. Benson and nine other artists including William Merritt Chase, Thomas Dewing, Childe Hassam, and J. Alden Weir formed 'Ten American painters'. They conducted annual exhibitions of their works in New York City and often showed in other cities, such as Boston, and became known as the American Impressionists. The Traditional Fine Arts Organization claimed he was 'one of the last great American Impressionists.'


The Sisters, 1899, Terra Museum, Chicago


Eleanor Holding a Shell, 1902, Private collection


Calm Morning, 1904, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Evening Light, 1908, Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio


Wildlife


Before Benson began his Impressionist paintings of his family, he made many seascape and landscape paintings. He used several mediums or techniques to capture his love of wildlife, including wash, watercolor, oil, lithography and etching. Regarding his artistic mastery, Peabody Essex Museum curator Dean Lahikainen commented: 'Benson was a unique artist, in that he had mastered so many different mediums and subjects. And from his early works right until the very end, light is what he was interested in.'


Reminiscent of Benson 's original goal as an artist to become an ornithological illustrator, birds were the subjects of most of his washes, etchings, and watercolors.


Wash paintings


At the Cape Cod hunting cabin that he purchased with his brothers-in-law, Benson began working with black-and-white wash in the 1890s. The works were a commercial success, so much so that Benson was not able to keep up with the demand.


Etching


In 1914, Benson began etching as an interesting pastime, one that along with his eye for aesthetics, required him to master the complex technique for the desired effect. In 191he first exhibited etchings of wild fowl, to popular acclaim. Benson turned increasingly to the depiction of landscapes featuring wildlife, an outgrowth of his interest in hunting and fishing. He went on to produce a steady and profitable output of etchings. Once most recognized for his Impressionist paintings, he became equally popular with his etchings. Arthur Philpott, a critic for the Boston Globe, claimed Benson was the 'best known and most popular etcher in the world.' To one of his daughters he said, 'The whole process from the bare plate to the finished print is full of fascinating possibilities and possible failures.' Benson , one of the best printmakers of the 20th century, is credited with making wildlife prints a distinct genre.


The Anchorage, etching, 1915, Art Gallery, University of New Hampshire


Geese Alighting, ca. 1916, etching, Brooklyn Museum, New York


Benson 's watercolor paintings began on a Canadian fishing trip in 1921. and were often the products of bird-hunting sojourns in Cape Cod and salmon fishing expeditions in Canada. were favorably compared to similar works by . A critic wrote of his watercolors, 'The love of the almost primitive wilderness which appears in many of Homer's landscapes and the swift, sure touch with which he suggests rather than describes--these also characterize Benson's work. The solitude of the northern woods is very much like Homer's.' Benson made more than 500 watercolors in his lifetime.


Benson was elected in 191as the first president of the Essex County Ornithological Society.


At the request of fellow artist and conservationist Jay Norwood 'Ding' Darling, Benson esigned the second Federal Duck Stamp in 1935. Death and Posthumous sales


He is buried in Salem's Harmony Grove Cemetery.


To date the highest price brought at auction for an oil painting by Benson is $4.million, realized at Sotheby's in 1995.


On October 19, 2006, a watercolor painting by Benson was sold at auction for $165,002. The painting was anonymously donated to an Oregon Goodwill Industries site, most likely without the owner knowing of its value. Bidding on the shopgoodwill.com website started at $10, and increased after the work was authenticated.





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