Frank W. Benson – American Impressionist (1862-1951)
By Walt Schnabel
Copyright © 2001 by Walt Schnabel
Frank Weston Benson was born in 1862 into a prosperous seafaring family in Salem, Massachusetts. He was the eldest son in a family that encouraged experimentation and creativity. The social and spiritual needs of the children were fulfilled with music classes, dancing lessons, and mandatory attendance at weekly Episcopal church services. Benson would later marry into the Unitarian Church but always described himself as a "wedding and funeral" type of churchgoer. Like all families of means, the Bensons would escape the heat of the Salem summer to Marblehead, south of Salem. At the age of 12, Benson had his own sailboat and became an accomplished sailor. By 17, Frank had turned tall and lanky (over six foot three) and was an avid sportsman. He played tennis almost every afternoon and in the winter excelled at boxing. He and his father, George, took frequent trips to hunt waterfowl that teemed along the North Shore. Two birds shot on one of these outings became the subject of his first oil painting.
Frank's mother (a painter herself) persuaded his father, skeptical of his son's ability to support himself as a painter, to enter the newly formed School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He entered the "Museum School" as it became known, in 1880. It was here that he developed his lifelong friendship with Joseph Lindon Smith.
In 1883, Benson and his father journeyed to Cuba and Puerto Rico. Frank filled several sketchbooks with scenes of native life. Inspired by foreign travel, Benson felt that he had outgrown the Museum School and decided to join the flood of American artists studying abroad. He and Joseph Lindon Smith set off for France together to enroll in the Academie Julian in Paris. For his 21st birthday, Frank was given a ticket to Paris, one thousand dollars, and strict instructions to return home when the money ran out.
While in Paris, Benson and Smith frequently painted each other's portraits and shipped them home to prove to their parents that their money was being well spent. It was in Paris that Benson first became exposed to Impressionism, a new and radical form of art that would later define him as an artist.
After two years in Paris, Benson and Smith returned to plan their careers. Frank knew that only a handful of artists ever achieve true financial success but luckily for him he was able to capitalize on the developing enthusiasm for American art in New England after the Civil War.
In October of 1888, Benson married Ellie Pierson, the daughter of another wealthy Salem family. They honeymooned in New Hampshire. Frank earned a meager 400 dollars from his painting during the first year of their marriage. Frank had to have wondered if he would be able to support a wife who carried her own silver teaball when traveling.
In 1889, Benson was offered the position of instructor of antique drawing at the Museum School. The news of a permanent position could not have come at a better time as the Bensons were expecting their first child. That year the Bensons summered in Dublin for the first time. Joseph Lindon Smith was probably in Dublin as well. He had been commissioned to do a portrait of Mrs. John Singleton Copley, a Boston heiress who eventually gave Smith the land that became known as Loon Point.
Once again, Abbott Thayer was the creative magnet that drew the young Benson to Dublin. He painted many views of Mount Monadnock and the surrounding countryside that summer. Thayer, Benson, and Smith would often backpack to a favorite spot where each would paint the scene in his own style. Thayer and Benson often fished together and their mutual love of wildlife figured prominently in their correspondence and paintings. In the mid-1890s, when Benson was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the Library of Congress, critics found a great deal of Thayer's influence.
The Bensons summered in Dublin from 1889 to 1893. They began the summer of 1893 in the usual small cottage while Frank worked on a portrait of Colonel Higginson. For unknown reasons, the Bensons left Dublin after a short time and spent the rest of the summer in Newcastle, New Hampshire. The worlds of Joseph Lindon Smith and Frank Benson had become very different. Joe was a world traveler; Frank was now a father of three. Though they remained lifelong friends, they saw very little each other after 1893.
Benson went on to become an American master. He received acclaim as a teacher, a portraitist, and a painter of wildlife. He was also one of the leaders of The Ten, a prominent group of American Impressionists. Benson, who spent the latter part of his life sketching waterfowl on his beloved North Shore, died quietly on a November afternoon in 1951 surrounded by the things he loved. Although the tangible rewards of Benson's work were obvious, he felt that being able to work at what he loved was the greatest gift life had given him. He once remarked to his friend and comrade Joseph Lindon Smith, "We lived and worked in a fortunate time."
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"Mount Monadnock" - circa 1890, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in., private collection, image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
"Mount Monadnock" - circa 1890, oil on canvas, 24 x 30.1 in., private collection, image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
"Eleanor Holding a Shell" - 1902, oil on canvas, 30.35 x 25 in., private collection, image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
"The Sisters" - 1899, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 in., private collection, image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
"Reflections" - 1921, oil on canvas, 43.75 x 36 in., private collection, image courtesy of The Athenaeum.