Frank Weston Benson was a true pioneer of American Impressionism. Well-known and financially successful during his lifetime, he also worked as an educator and printmaker.
This brief introduction explores some of Frank Weston Benson's most famous artworks and his fascinating personal life.
Born on 24 March 1863, Frank W. Benson grew up in Salem, Massachusetts.
His father was a wealthy cotton merchant, and the family owned many "exotic" artifacts (which later appeared in Benson's art). They inherited these treasures from Benson's grandfather, Captain Samuel Benson, a sailor, and explorer.
In 1880, Benson enrolled at the "School of the Museum of Fine Arts" in Boston. He studied classical painting in the European style under Otto Grundmann and Frederic Crowninshield.
Benson even started teaching during this time, running free drawing classes in the city of Salem. He ALSO met Edmund Charles Tarbell around this time, who became a lifelong friend and fellow founding member of the "Ten".
After this experience, Benson moved to Paris in 1883. His parents gifted him $2,000 on his twenty-first birthday to enable these travels. He continued his studies at the prestigious Académie Julian, a private art school for painting and sculpture. Here, Benson studied under Jules Joseph Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger.
He briefly toured Europe, spending time in Italy, Belgium, Germany, and France. Benson also traveled to London, England, to see his painting After the Storm (1884) exhibited at the Royal Academy.
Benson briefly resided at an artist's colony in Concarneau in France, alongside artists such as Willard Metcalf and Edward Simmons. He met Ellen Perry Pierson here, the daughter of family friends in Salem.
The pair married in 1888 and had four children together. Their names were Eleanor, George, Elisabeth, and Sylvia.
Benson returned to America in 1886 and started his artistic career creating portraits of wealthy families.
Some of his most celebrated works depict his own family, however. For instance, Eleanor (1907) and Summer (1909) both show Benson's daughters outside their summer home in the beautiful Maine countryside. This idyllic getaway was Wooster Farm, located on the island of North Haven in Maine.
The family always left Boston during the summers, first staying at New Castle, New Hampshire, from 1893 to 1900. Here, Benson created his first Impressionist works, such as The Sisters and Children in the Woods.
They purchased Wooster Farm after this, where Benson particularly enjoyed painting "en plein air" (i.e., outdoors). The views of the nearby orchard and surrounding bay area were incredibly inspiring.
Characterizing his work, the Art Historian Faith Andrews Bedford described Benson's paintings as "alive with reflections of youth and optimism." Indeed, they perfectly combine innocence with idealism and contemporary modernity.
From this date onwards, Benson enjoyed a successful art instructor and painter career.
From 1886, he taught at the Portland Society of Art, mainly focusing on figure painting. In 1889 however, Benson enjoyed a prestigious promotion as department head at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts back in Boston. He remained at this institution until 1912.
In 1915, Benson held an exhibition of etchings and drypoints. They were an immense success, primarily focusing on upper-class sporting subjects (such as waterfowl). Indeed, these drawings combined Benson's love of the outdoors with his meticulous yet expressive draftsmanship.
This interest stemmed from Benson's early childhood when he embarked on fishing and hunting trips alongside his brothers and father. Indeed, Benson's father taught him how to hunt shore birds and wildfowl, and he spent many weekends exploring the Massachusetts marshes and streams.
After his 1915 exhibition, Benson created fewer paintings of women and children. Girl with a Dog (1914) is one of the artist's final idyllic, domestic creations.
Despite resigning from a teaching role in 1912, Benson retained his connection with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He was a member of the advisory council, serving until 1930.
Frank Weston Benson died on 14 November 1951 at his home in Salem, Massachusetts.
In addition to his work as an artist and educator, Benson also founded various artist groups.
These movements included the "Ten American Painters" with members such as Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, and J. Alden Weir. Benson was also a founding member of The Guild of Boston Artists and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1897, the "Ten" withdrew from the Society of American Artists. They rejected the organization's strict academic focus. Instead, these breakaway artists promoted their work through smaller, independent exhibitions.
While there weren't any strict stylistic requirements, they almost always used expressive brushwork. In addition, the artists focused on the natural qualities of light with a bright color palette.
Childe Hassam and Mary Cassatt's paintings reflect this shift. While Cassatt wasn't a member of the "Ten", she worked closely with French Impressionist painters such as Edgar Degas. Her painting Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878) shows Degas' daughter resting amidst a room filled with bright blue sofas and chairs.
Childe Hassam's paintings, such as Poppies, and Isles of Shoals (1891), similarly represent the American Impressionist focus on light-filled natural landscapes.
Today, Benson is best known for his American Impressionist paintings, created in a realistic yet expressive style.
Despite this, his influences include seventeenth-century masters such as Johannes Vermeer and Diego Velázquez. Benson combined their intensely detailed techniques with new French Impressionist approaches exemplified by Claude Monet.
Indeed, Benson's paintings strongly reflected Monet's light color palette, visible brushstrokes, and focus on fleeting light. Nonetheless, he kept greater realism in his art, representing elegant subjects in sun-filled settings.
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