"Salmon fishing seems to me the finest sport in the world," Frank Benson wrote to a friend, shortly after his first trip to the remote rivers of Canada's Gaspé Peninsula, "You feel as if you were hitched to a railway train, yet if you handle him well you are sure to beat him at last and if you make a mistake he will smash you." (Frank W. Benson to Dan Henderson, 3 February l895, Henderson Papers, Peabody Essex Museum, fig. 1)
As a boy, Benson tramped the marshes near his home, in Salem, Massachusetts with his brothers and friends. They fished for trout and hunted for wildfowl. In the winter, the boys skated the frozen rivers and trapped muskrats. A tall, lanky fellow, Benson was an expert sailor who also enjoyed tennis and sparring at a local boxing club. By the time he began art studies at Boston's Museum School in l880, Benson was an ardent sportsman.
By 1895, when Benson first discovered salmon fishing, his career was firmly established. He maintained a grueling schedule: teaching art classes, working on numerous portrait commissions, arranging student shows and sitting on exhibition juries. Commuting by train from Salem to Boston, Benson shared with his close friend Edmund Tarbell, the directorship of the Museum School as well as a studio on St. Botolph Street. There he created a series of interiors that were accepted at major art exhibitions winning him not only critical acclaim and popular admiration but also numerous prizes. Beginning with the Hallgarten Prize in 1891 when he was 29, Benson won every existing prize the art world had to offer, earning him the title "America's Most Medalled Painter." As Benson once wrote a museum director, "I find myself so pressed by work at all times that it is necessary for me, when I can leave my painting, to go out of doors for recreation." (Frank Weston Benson to John Beatty, Director, Carnegie Institute, 4 December l9l9, Carnegie Papers)
Benson's annual salmon fishing trips became an important part of that "recreation" for decades. "It is," he wrote to a friend after thirty years of salmon fishing, "the thing I look forward to most during the rest of the year." (Frank Weston Benson to Mrs. McClellan, 25 February 1929, Benson file, Addison Gallery of American Art) The wild solitude of the north woods was the perfect antidote for Benson's demanding life. There, he sought the elusive salmon beneath whirling rapids and in quiet pools. But his fishing trips turned out to be more than simple recreation. They spawned a whole new direction for Benson's career: one in which his life and his art flowed together--inspired by his love of sport.
Leaving by train from Boston's North Station, Benson and his fishing party (which often included artist friends such as J. Alden Weir and Willard Metcalf) traveled to Quebec where a series of local trains finally delivered them to Grand River. Their gear was then loaded on horseback and transferred to a scow on the banks of one of the many rivers he fished, rivers whose names frequently found their way into titles of his works: the Saguenay, the St. Marguerite and the Restigouche, the York, the Kedgewick and the Bonaventure. While Benson and his companions often stayed at comfortable lodges or rustic hotels (and, sometimes, at a palatial "camp" belonging to a friend), it was the remote wilderness that he treasured most. "We live under tents and roam over 12 mi. of river, each with a light canoe and one guide," Benson wrote, "The current is rapid and up stream work is done by poling. The whole country is wild, and we see no life except that of the wild things. The river runs through high hills--mountains in fact--and the shores are impossible to a fisherman, as the trees grow to the water." (Frank W. Benson to Dan Henderson, 28 July 1924, Henderson Papers)
During the first thirty years of his career, Benson only rarely painted men hunting or fishing. It was on an excursion to the Bonaventure River, in the summer of 1921, that Benson decided to try watercolor painting, a medium he had long scorned as "too lady-like." His first watercolor painting, created at the Bon Salmon Club, was a quick study of the river. His next painting was a portrait of Willard Metcalf, sitting at the edge of the water, working on a watercolor of his own. More watercolors of sporting scenes quickly followed. Benson was hooked.
With such a portable medium, he no longer had to put his painting on hold while he was away from his studio. When he hung a few of these new works in a show at the Guild of Boston Artists, collectors snapped them up as eagerly as salmon leap for flies. Of his watercolors, Benson's daughter Sylvia wrote a dealer, "It is pretty hard work to hold onto the kind [of paintings] that you want. We try to do it by keeping them in Salem but people come and buy them out of the house when they had not come for that purpose at all!" (Sylvia Benson to Albert Milch, 14 July l927. Milch Papers, Archives of American Art) It was as though the discovery of this new medium had opened the floodgates to a previously untapped source of inspiration and creative energy. Once Benson saw the possibilities of watercolor (and the public's reaction to these new works), he was never without a watercolor pad and a box of paints. He chronicled not only his fishing trips to Canada but also those to the Florida Keys and his fishing club at Tihonet near Massachusetts' Buzzard's Bay. His sporting paintings also featured scenes from his hunting trips to Long Point in Ontario, the backcountry of Maine, the Chesapeake Bay and Cape Cod where he owned a hunting shack overlooking the Nauset Marsh.
Benson had what one critic described as a "snap shutter eye." While a number of his works were created from memory, from years of observing the natural world and from his vast stores of knowledge about the attitudes of birds, as well as the exact tonal relationship of sky and water and the anatomy of men at sport, most of his watercolors were done on site. He would quickly portray the ephemeral effects of sun and shadow on water and sky and capture, in a few, swift strokes, the actions of his fellow fishermen, his hunting companions or birds making a striking design against the sky. Once the fleeting images of such subjects as men shooting the rapids, casting for salmon or poling upstream against a heavy current were captured in watercolor, some of these paintings later became studies for oils or etchings. It almost seems as though Benson chose the light, quick medium of watercolor to swiftly sketch the most active scenes from his fishing trips and saved oil painting for depicting the quieter times at the end of the day when supper is being cooked, a fire prepared and the tired men pause to contemplate the events of the day.
Benson's oil, Twilight, captures just such a moment. His sure touch suggests the peaceful solitude that he treasured when he was in the north woods. Although the sun has set and the mountains are already dark, a glimmer of twilight still fills the pale sky and is reflected in the river below. The tall hills, cloaked in flowing passages of cobalt blue and indigo, cast deep shadows on the silvery surface of the still water. A fisherman stands in his canoe silently gliding close to shore. His paddle is poised as he considers something in the distance. Perhaps he has seen his companions setting up camp for the night and is adjusting his course to join them Maybe he is scouting out the perfect spot for the next day's fishing and has seen a salmon leap, its arcing body throwing silvery spray against the cool evening air. In this evocative painting, Benson has expressed his deepest feelings for the place man holds in the wilderness. The solitary figure of the fisherman ghosting quietly in his canoe is subordinated to the majesty of the looming mountains and the power of the swift stream.
Twilight's first owner, William Wheelock, was one of Benson's frequent hunting companions. Several years after buying Twilight, Wheelock also purchased Benson's Dawn on the York (1931, private collection, fig. 2) and invited the artist to his home to see the paintings hanging together. This work made a perfect pendant to Twilight. A large oil, with a similarly quiet mood, Dawn on the York also features, once again, the solitary figure of a fisherman poling a canoe through a wide stream with banks of gravel and sand cloaked in heavy woods. As in Twilight, the stream shimmers and reflects the pale, silvery blue of the sky although this time the faint light is caused by the first rays of dawn rather than dusk. A thin rim of pink portends the rising of the sun. (Interview, by the author, with Mrs. Morgan Wheelock, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1990)
For almost half a century Benson, like the salmon he sought, was drawn irresistibly year after year to the rivers of Canada. They were a constant inspiration, a place of comradeship and, perhaps most of all, a source of contentment. "We camped at Round Rock and lay in the tents and smoked," he wrote on one journey, "[From there we had] a vista of the opposite hill between two cedars with a spur like fir tree crowning the top of the ridge opposite. A star shone out and the fire burned at our feet. Later a yellow full moon showed over the trees, otherwise silence..." (7 July 1919, Frank W. Benson's Fishing Log, Peabody Essex Museum)
We are grateful to Faith Andrews Bedford, author of the biography Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist, and The Sporting Art of Frank Benson, for her assistance in cataloguing this lot.