A prominent member of the Boston School and founder of the group of painters called "The Ten," Frank Weston Benson is recognized as a leading figure in American Impressionism. Painted in 1913, The Seamstress possesses all the traits of the artist's highly personal and celebrated style. It is a beautiful and intimate depiction of the artist's beloved daughter Eleanor that manifests Benson's bold brushwork and mastery of light and atmosphere.
Interior scenes such as the The Seamstress were complements to Benson's celebrated depictions of women and children out of doors and the artist's primary focus during the winter months spent in Boston. The Seamstress is a superior example of these domestic portraits that Benson was producing during the early 1900s. Here his twenty-three year old daughter, Eleanor, sits elegantly engrossed in her craft in a softly lit corner of his St. Botolph Street studio. She sews next to the window, which serves as the light source for the composition and illuminates her needlework and her flowing white dress, as well as the wall behind her. Beside her is an 18th-century William and Mary turned walnut gate leg table, created in Boston between 1720-1740, with a circular top with drop leaves above a rectangular frieze that continues to baluster and vasiform turned supports with two swing legs ending on turned feet. Upon the table, a violin, potted plant and a pitcher rest, silhouetted by the light which pours in through the window behind them and catches small highlights on each of the objects. Closest to the sitter is her kit with spools of thread in vibrant reds and cobalts. As Faith Andrews Bedford notes, "the compositional elements provided by the decorative elements in his interiors underscore Benson's comment that 'People in general have a sense of beauty and know when things are right. And design is the only thing that matters.' So important was the composition of his interiors with figures that, at times, the model seems as much a beautiful objet d'art as the furnishing and the accessories." (unpublished letter, April 1, 2013)
The Seamstress is subtly composed, and Benson's rich, dashing brushwork animates the surface of the canvas, giving visual interest to an elegantly understated canvas. The light suffused interior is a rarefied setting that underscores the sense of restraint and sophistication that typified his style at the time. Throughout the palette is warm and subtle, which is heightened by the soft, diffuse rays of light reflecting off the satin gray walls.
The composition, palette and, above all, use of light in the present work reflect Benson's careful study of the work of Jan Vermeer. "After 1905 or so...Boston painters began to look to Vermeer as a primary source of inspiration. In so doing, they abandoned their earlier, relatively free interpretation of Impressionism and turned instead to a more subdued approach characterized by a muted palette, structured composition and a preference for serene, light-filled interiors." (C. Lowrey, "The Art of Philip Leslie Hale," Philip Leslie Hale, A.N.A. 1865-1931, exhibition catalogue, Boston, 1988, p. 9.) In 1904, Philip Leslie Hale, a contemporary of Benson's and member of the Boston school, edited the text and illustrations for the first monograph to be published on Vermeer in the United States as part of the Masters of Art series. Considering the volume was published in Boston, and the liberal exchange of ideas among the Boston school painters, it is likely that Benson would have read the book and thus been inspired. The Seamstress exemplifies the timeless beauty that these artists sought to create.
Benson explored Vermeer-like principles in a range of works, one of which, The Gray Room (1913, Private collection) he displayed in the 1913 exhibition of The Ten in Boston. While on view there the painting was the subject of considerable praise. A critic for the Boston Evening Transcript noted in his review of the whole exhibition at the Copley Gallery in Boston that The Gray Room was a 'favorite' of the exhibition and described the painting as 'a young woman who sits back to the light in a tasteful room.' (March 18, 1913) According to Faith Andrews Bedford, "Benson kept a small print of [Vermeer's] Young Woman with Water Jug (circa 1662, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) in his studio. When his daughter Eleanor began to paint, he gave it to her as a fine example of the painting of light. (F.A. Bedford, Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist, New York, 1994, p. 137)
Benson's renderings of women are among his most successful works. Trevor Fairbrother notes, "A mainstay of the Boston School was the female portrait, which typically presents the sitter against a quiet background while strongly suggesting that she is both stylish and intelligent, elegant and accomplished...It is consistent with the tradition of John Singleton Copley, whose eighteenth-century female sitters were dignified, thoughtful, and expensively dressed, but rarely ostentatious." (T. Fairbrother, The Bostonians: Painters of an Elegant Age, 1870-1930, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, 1986, p. 66)
As in Benson's finest domestic portraits, The Seamstress masterfully captures a moment of quiet and introspection. Eleanor is absorbed in her sewing as her violin lies abandoned beside her. Although a reoccurring subject of Benson's work, there is little known about the personality of his daughter. What is evident is that she is peacefully and intently at work, a swatch of cloth elegantly cascading down her lap. Embodied with a timeless beauty, interior scenes such as The Seamstress established Benson's reputation as a leading figure of American Impressionism. With its refined subject matter and sensitive execution, the present work exemplifies the rarefied aesthetic of the Boston School, and affirms the place of Benson's domestic portraits among his finest Impressionist works.
We are grateful to Faith Andrews Bedford, author of the biography Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist, The Sporting Art of Frank Benson, and Impressionist Summers: Frank W. Benson's North Haven for her assistance in cataloguing this lot.
CAPTIONS: © Christie's images, 2000. Private collection.
Jan Vermeer (van Delft) (1632-1675). Young Woman with a Water Pitcher. Ca. 1662. Oil on canvas, 18 x 16 in. (45.7 x 40.6 cm). Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1889 (89.15.21). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, U.S.A. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY