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IMPRESSIONIST

SUMMERS

Frank W. Benson’s North Haven


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CONTENTS

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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

NOTES 118

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY 123

CHECKLIST OF THE EXHIBITION 126


Fig. 6. Summer, 1890.

Oil on canvas. 50 ∑ 40 in.

Smithsonian American

Art Museum. Gift of

John Gellatly. Photograph

courtesy of Smithsonian

American Art Museum,

Washington, D.C./

Art Resource, NY. This

painting won a prize

in 1896 for best figural

work at the Society of

American Artists.

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

Museum.


above:

Fig. 8. Children in the Woods, 1898.

Oil on canvas. Private collection.

opposite:

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 #


above:

Fig. 17. A bedroom at Wooster

Farm. One of Benson’s wildfowl

etchings hangs between the

windows. Photograph Walter

Smallings.

below:

Fig. 19. The dining room at

Wooster Farm. The blue-andwhite

Chinese export ware had

been handed down through the

generations. Photograph Walter

Smallings.

opposite:

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

wooden floors.

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

natural light.

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

plein-air paintings.

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

Benson’s studio.

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 #


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PAINTING with SUNSHINE CrrrrrrrrrrrrrrB

chapter 3

# 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

foreground.

39 #


above left:

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

Dwight Primiano.

above right:

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

the author.

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,

Manchester, NH.


Fig. 93. The Lobsterman, 1937.

Watercolor and graphite on

paper, 19 ∑ 29 1/ 2 in. (sight).

Farnsworth Art Museum,

Rockland, ME. Museum

purchase, 1943.62.

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.


above left:

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.

above right:

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.

right:

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

flowers.

Eleanor’s yellow

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,

as well.

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

mother, Eleanor.


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IMPRESSIONIST SUMMERS

FRANK. W. BENSON'S NORTH HAVEN

FAITH ANDREWS BEDFORD

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Skira Rizzoli Publications, Inc.

300 Park Avenue South

New York, NY 10010

www.rizzoliusa.com

ISBN: 978-0-8478-3906-3

8 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches

128 pages, 130 illustrations

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For serial rights, images to accompany your coverage,

or any other publicity information about this title

please contact: Pam Sommers, Publicity Director,

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