Frank W. Benson’s North Haven
DIRECTOR’S FOREWORD 7
CHAPTER I SEARCHING FOR SUMMER 11
CHAPTER II AN ISLAND HOME 23
CHAPTER III PAINTING WITH SUNSHINE 39
CHAPTER IV BLACK AND WHITE 65
CHAPTER V A PORTABLE PALETTE 79
CHAPTER VI EVENING LIGHT 97
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY 123
CHECKLIST OF THE EXHIBITION 126
Fig. 6. Summer, 1890.
Oil on canvas. 50 ∑ 40 in.
Art Museum. Gift of
John Gellatly. Photograph
courtesy of Smithsonian
American Art Museum,
Art Resource, NY. This
painting won a prize
in 1896 for best figural
work at the Society of
sentiment and a classical yet refined treatment …
[T]here is a … pensive tranquility that gives Mr.
Benson a unique niche.” 8
The same pensive quality can be seen in
Children in the Woods (Fig. 8), Benson’s first
painting to incorporate broken, prismatic light
in an outdoor setting. Eleanor and George
are posed in the hush of the forest. While the
brushstrokes give the trees an almost feathery
quality, the palette is subdued. There is no hint
of the shimmering, sun-dappled paintings he
would soon create at North Haven. Nevertheless,
such canvases help dispel the notion that Benson
was entirely an “interior” painter or that his only
outdoor works were pure landscape.
When Benson painted Elisabeth and Sylvia at
Newcastle in The Sisters (Fig. 9), he finally ceased
his hesitant experiments with Impressionism. The
reviewer for the Boston Transcript called the first
exhibition of the painting in that city “triumphant”
and devoted an entire paragraph to its description,
noting: “It is delicious far beyond all expectations
and, by all that is lovely, we hereby urge our
readers to make a point to see this exquisitely
beautiful picture. It is an ideally blyth vision of
youth and summer sunlight.… ” 9
When it was first exhibited at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, it immediately
won a prize: $1,000 and the Silver Medal for Painting. It went on to win two more
Silver Medals: at the Paris Exposition of 1900 and at the 1901 Pan-American
Exposition in Buffalo. Finally, at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis,
it again took a prize—this time the Gold.
By the time that The Sisters was awarded its first medal, Benson had already won
fifteen prizes and awards. He eventually captured nearly every award in the art world.
His friend Willard Metcalf, writing to congratulate Benson on winning the 1921 Logan
Prize, said, “I am surprised only because I thought you had already taken it. Well, now!
There isn’t anything left for you and someone will have to inaugurate some new prize
somewhere.” 10 Often called “America’s most medaled painter,” Benson garnered more
than forty-one prizes, not to mention six honors and recognitions (Fig. 10). Despite
! 16 searching for summer searching for summer 17 #
Fig. 7. Frank W. Benson
painting Mother and Children,
a portrait of Ellen with George
and Eleanor in Newcastle,
New Hampshire. Photograph
courtesy of Peabody Essex
Fig. 8. Children in the Woods, 1898.
Oil on canvas. Private collection.
Fig. 9. The Sisters, 1899. Oil on canvas, 40 ∑ 40 in.
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Daniel
J. Terra Collection, 1999.11. Photography ©Terra
Foundation for American Art, Chicago.
! 18 searching for summer searching for summer 19 #
Fig. 17. A bedroom at Wooster
Farm. One of Benson’s wildfowl
etchings hangs between the
windows. Photograph Walter
Fig. 19. The dining room at
Wooster Farm. The blue-andwhite
Chinese export ware had
been handed down through the
generations. Photograph Walter
Fig 18. My Daughter Elisabeth, ca.
1914. Oil on canvas, 44 ∑ 37 in.
Collection of the Detroit Institute
of Arts. Detroit Museum of Art
purchase, Special Membership and
Donation Fund and Gray and Mrs.
William R. Kales Fund. Photograph
courtesy of Detroit Institute of
Arts/Bridgeman Art Library.
While mahogany pieces filled their Salem home,
most of the furniture at Wooster Farm was pine. To
keep the decor light, Ellen occasionally painted some
of it white. Benson bought a set of lightweight, rattan
chairs that he used several times in his North Haven
paintings (see Fig. 18). Oriental carpets covered the
bare floors in only the living room and sitting room,
for the Bensons preferred the polished glow of the old
The table was set with mismatched Chinese
export ware (Fig. 19). “That was the charm of it,” one
granddaughter remembered. “Nothing matched.
But it wasn’t supposed to. It looked wonderful together.
The conventions of fashion were unnecessary at
Wooster Farm.” 4
One of Benson’s first projects was to partition the
barn into a studio (Fig. 20). Two-thirds of it became his
atelier; the remainder was used for storage. Massive,
hand-hewn beams supported the spacious hayloft.
Benson removed most of the loft floor and installed a
tall window that flooded the studio with even, balanced
In their second year at Wooster Farm, the
Bensons built the piazza—a broad, flat deck across the
front of the house. On the deck they placed a large slatback
bench. Originally dark green, the bench was soon
painted white and featured in a number of Benson’s
Water from a deep well near the barn was
pumped into two large wooden water tanks in the
remaining hayloft. It was then fed by gravity to a
pump in the kitchen and a large copper sink in
J. Murray Howe, a Boston area developer, bought
up land and houses on both sides of the Fox Islands
Thoroughfare and built a number of large Shingle-style
homes, which he then sold to the summer people. In
the houses he built for “the rusticators,” Howe included
! 28 an island home an island home 29 #
PAINTING with SUNSHINE CrrrrrrrrrrrrrrB
# Making improvements to Wooster Farm left Benson little time for
continuing his experiments with Impressionism. His first North Haven
painting was a canvas of Eleanor, her hand upraised to shield her eyes from
the bright sunshine—a pose she would repeat often (Fig. 34). Before its first exhibition,
the work was purchased by Mrs. Gustav Raedeke, daughter of the founder of the Rhode
Island School of Design.
The Bensons were so delighted with their new summer home that they invited
Ellen’s mother to join them for their first summer there. Ellen’s sister, Katie, and her
family came, too; together they rented one of the small cottages clustered around
Bartlett’s Harbor just a short walk through the woods from Wooster Farm. 1
Benson noticed his niece, Margaret, watching him working on her cousin’s
portrait and created a painting just for her. The result is a charming little oil sketch
(Fig. 33). The loose handling of paint and the bright palette perfectly capture a summer
day in Maine. Ellen and her mother sit on the white bench while Elisabeth swings in
a hammock. Margaret stands in the foreground looking directly at her Uncle Frank, of
whom, her daughter remembers, “she spoke often with much affection and respect.” 2
By the family’s second summer on the island, most of Benson’s projects had been
completed. Charmed by Eleanor’s fascination with a whelk shell she had found on
the beach, Benson painted two versions of her holding it. In the painting he kept for
himself, Eleanor stands in the dappled sunlight of the spruce woods holding the shell
high, admiring its shimmering pink lining as the light shines through it (Fig. 35).
The other painting Benson completed was an oil of four-year-old Sylvia standing
at her mother’s knee (Fig. 36). The following winter, when Sunlight won the Lippincott
Fig. 33. The Benson Family at
Wooster Farm, North Haven,
Maine, 1901. Oil on canvas.
24 7/ 8 ∑ 29 15/ 16 in.
Chazen Museum of Art,
University of Wisconsin-
Madison. Gift of Katharine
T. Bradley, 1991.147. Benson
created this oil sketch especially
for his niece Margaret Ramsey,
the little girl standing in the
Fig. 44. Summer Day, 1911.
Oil on canvas. 36 1/ 8 ∑ 32 1/ 8 in.
Crystal Bridges Museum of
American Art, Bentonville,
Arkansas. Photography by
Fig. 45. Elisabeth and Togo pose
at the edge of the apple orchard
for an unlocated painting
probably titled Elisabeth.
Benson took photographs of
his daughter with and without
the dog and obviously felt
that Togo added a great deal to
the composition. Collection of
holding the ruffled parasol. Although Benson painted over Eleanor’s figure, her ghostly
shape persists in pentimento, and a faint parasol still hovers above Sylvia’s head. The
parasol appears once more in an unlocated work of Elisabeth sitting in the orchard with
Togo by her side (Fig. 45).
Benson also used the parasol to excellent effect in The Reader, a painting of
Eleanor sitting in bright sunlight on the farmhouse lawn (Fig. 46). The graceful curve
of her figure and the arc of the parasol are set against the strong verticals of the picket
fence and the angled handle of her sunshade.
Benson’s portrait of Eleanor in a pink dress was his first painting to be bought
by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. When its acquisition was announced in the
museum’s Bulletin, the writer compared the image of Eleanor to Benson’s murals
for the Congressional Library. Observing that he had translated into “terms of New
England reality” the more classical goddesses of his “Graces,” the writer continued,
“the landscape becoming that of our own coast, the marble seat and colonnade a
farmhouse piazza and picket fence, and the figure realizing instead of idealizing the
delicacy and vivacity of American girlhood.” 20
! 52 painting with sunshine painting with sunshine 53 #
Fig. 46. The Reader, 1906,
Oil on canvas, 25 1/ 4 ∑ 30 in.
On anonymous loan to the
Currier Museum of Art,
Fig. 93. The Lobsterman, 1937.
Watercolor and graphite on
paper, 19 ∑ 29 1/ 2 in. (sight).
Farnsworth Art Museum,
Rockland, ME. Museum
paintings at the Carnegie Institute, Benson bemoaned the fact that “it is an awful thing
trying to keep up with the current exhibitions!” 20
With the demand for his etchings and watercolors so great, Benson appreciated
the peace of North Haven. Collectors were not knocking on his studio door there. He
was able to paint at a more leisurely pace. He chose subjects that were ordinary aspects
of his daily life but that, with his brush, he made extraordinary.
Every few days a neighbor and his son rowed around the headland to tend their
lobster traps in Wooster Cove. Benson depicted them alone on the water, save for a few
hopeful gulls (Fig. 93). The painting is a wash of dawn colors, the figures dark against
the morning light. Such a work may have inspired Benson to tell Eleanor, “A picture or
drawing is like a poem. When the poet starts, he has no more and no different words
to work with than you have. A work of art is made by his choice.” 21
Benson’s etchings had been greatly admired in England over the years. When
he sent a collection of watercolors to London, a British reviewer recognized the poetry
in Benson’s paintings. “I have seen no watercolors from America which better please
me personally,” he wrote. “He has the barest dash of the master, the freedom from
technical embarrassment that comes from intense knowledge and with it all there
comes a poetry pervading his work. This exhibition should do much to inspire London
with a respect for the work of American artists.” 22
In light of the critical and popular reaction to Benson’s watercolors, it is
interesting to recall his earlier feelings about the medium. “I had always looked upon
watercolors rather indifferently, most of the ones I had seen had been soft and pretty,”
he said. “But, I came to realize that the medium was one which could be exceeding[ly]
strong and expressive.” 23
Benson first took up watercolors merely because they were portable. He grew to
love the medium for its expressive qualities. It afforded him the ability to capture the
moment and to create a balance between spontaneity and structure. Of all the media he
used, watercolor was the one he continued until the end of his life.
! 94 a portable palette a portable palette 95 #
Fig. 94. The Lobsterman, 1915.
Etching on paper, 7 7/ 8 ∑ 9 7/ 8 in.
Boston Public Library, Print
Department. This lobsterman
may have been the same
neighbor whom Benson depicted
in a watercolor of the same
name on the opposite page.
Fig. 99. Peonies in Blue China,
1923. Watercolor on paper, 25 ∑
19 in. Collection of Grant E. and
Carol J. Nelson. Photography
by Steve Umland. The peonies
in the Wooster Farm garden
were divisions taken from the
original plants brought back
from China by Benson’s seacaptain
ancestors. Cuttings still
bloom in family gardens.
Fig. 100. Young Girl by a
Window, 1911. Oil on canvas
30 ∑ 25 in. (sight) Collection
of the Georgia Museum of
Art, University of Georgia; Eva
Underhill Holbrook Memorial
Collection of American Art, gift
of Alfred H. Holbrook, 1945.4.
Fig. 101. Hand-embroidered
mandarin coat owned by
Eleanor Benson. This coat is
very similar to the ones she and
her sisters wore in paintings by
their father. Private collection.
Photography by Joe Ofria.
decorative element. Not so
his North Haven interiors.
Benson’s painting of Eleanor
by a window is a simple,
unaffected portrait (Fig. 100)
The only decorative accessory
is a small vase of garden
mandarin coat glows in the
soft light from the window. 7
Benson made frequent use
of these beautiful, handembroidered
silk coats (Fig
101), some of which had been
brought back from the East
by his ancestors, while he
purchased others at Boston’s
branch of the East Asian
antiquities company Yamanaka
& Co. 8 Their shimmering
colors and rich designs
figure in over half a dozen of
Benson’s paintings, not only
worn by models but draped
over tables in his still lifes,
Elisabeth was also
depicted in a mandarin coat
for a rainy-day painting. The
dark elegance of the deep
blue, embroidered silk makes a striking contrast to her simple summer frock with its
ruffled lace collar (Fig. 102). 9
At fourteen Sylvia became the subject of a similarly elegant interior work (Fig.
103). In the many positive reviews that My Daughter received, writers noted Sylvia’s
“unassuming beauty” and “natural refinement.” One critic wrote, “This latest painting
is … destined to rank with the great portrait paintings of the world, not only because of
its technical excellence as a picture but also as a type of American girl. It is a fine type
! 100 evening light evening light 101 #
Fig. 102. Portrait of Elisabeth,
ca. 1918. Oil on canvas, 29 3/ 8 ∑
24 1/ 2 in. Private collection.
Fig. 108. Frank W. Benson with
his first two grandchildren,
Benny (l) and Ralph Jr., 1918.
Collection of the author.
of what he could see from each window. The room was soon ringed with rocky shores
and splashing waves, deep spruce woods, and a blue sky with billowing clouds (see
Figs. 110, 111, and 112).
As he was proudly adding the last bit of paint to the murals, he spied one of the
caretakers. “Come in and see what I’ve done to the sitting room,” he called. Looking
about, the man observed, “Well that’s real nice. It’s ’bout as good as any wallpaper I’ve
ever seen!” It was an honest bit of heartfelt praise. To the painter, whose works were
now selling for $5,000 apiece, it was both amusing and humbling. 17
The visitor might have been Parker Stone, a young man who could do anything:
carpentry, electrical work, plumbing. He helped Benson dig a new well and put in
a bathroom, install fences, and put together the “Portable House”—a kit home that
Benson bought to house his growing brood of grandchildren. A fellow hunter, he and
Benson spent many hours together shooting. He was also a good excuse: often he
would be finishing up work just as unexpected visitors dropped by. Seeing a good way
to get out of small talk and social pleasantries, Benson would say, “Come on, Parker,
let’s go finish that job at the barn.” Then they would spend an hour or two cleaning
guns and talking hunting.
Posed in a jaunty cap, Stone looks at the viewer with a studied gaze (Fig. 113).
For a man who spent much of his time out of doors, he seems uncomfortable in his
best suit. The painting’s alternate title, Study in Shadows is appropriate. The light falls
on the right side of Stone’s face, highlighting his strong bone structure and aquiline
nose. Despite the warm friendship between sitter and artist, Benson clearly meant
this unsentimental portrait to be a study of strong contrasts, one that would convey
the quiet intelligence of the island man. Stone had recently broken his arm. Although
Benson could easily have omitted the cast, the two thought it would be amusing to
leave it in. It is just barely visible peeking out from his sleeve. 18
! 106 evening light evening light 107 #
Fig. 109. Two Boys, 1926.
Oil on canvas, 32 3/ 16 ∑ 40 1/ 8 in.
Metropolitan Museum of Art,
NY. George A. Hearn Fund,
1927.16. Photograph © The
Metropolitan Museum of
Art. Courtesy Art Resource,
NY. Benny and his brother,
Ralph (standing), are posed
on the same hillside where
their grandfather painted their
FRANK. W. BENSON'S NORTH HAVEN
FAITH ANDREWS BEDFORD
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