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 Benson: American Impressionist, will
showcase the breadth and depth of this important American painter. It runs through February 18,
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 Tarbell and Philip Hale brought European
techniques of landscape and portrait painting to New England. Benson also joined a smaller group
of New York and Boston artists known as The Ten, who broke from the Society of American Artists in
the late nineteenth century.
Frank Benson painted some of the most beautiful pictures ever executed by an American artist,
wrote art historian William H. Gerdts in Ms. Andrews Bedford's 1994 book on Benson. 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 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.
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, patrician 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
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.
The technique worked, as the artist consistently took home top prizes at the large American
exhibition. Frank 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 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 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.
Study for Young Girl with a Veil,
F. W. Benson.
Oil on canvas.