Peabody Essex Museum

Salem, MA



Light Shines on Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist


He was one of the last great American Impressionists and among the most celebrated painters of his day. In all his work, Frank W. Benson brilliantly captured the effects of light on the physical world. Benson's virtuosity with light in all its manifestations will be the focus of a major exhibition opening at the Peabody Essex Museum September 29, 2000.

Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist will showcase the breadth and depth of this important American painter. The exhibition is sponsored by Sovereign Bank New England and runs through February 18, 2001.

"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 C. Tarbell and Philip Leslie Hale brought European techniques of landscape and portrait painting to New England. Today he is recognized as one of America' s finest Impressionist painters. (left: Nasturtiums in a Vase, watercolor on paper, n.d., 13 3/4 x 19 1/2 inches, Private collection)

"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." (left: Reflections, 1921, oil on canvas, 43 1/2 x 35 1/2 inches, Private collection)

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." (left: In Summer (Elizabeth and Anna), 1909, oil on canvas, 32 x 25 inches, Private collection)

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." (left: Child with a Seashell, 1902, 30 x 25 inches, Private collection)

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 the 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.

Read more about the Peabody Essex Museum in Resource Library Magazine

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/4/11

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.