A leading figure in American Art, Frank Weston Benson is recognized both as one of the principle artists of the Boston School, and as a member of the group of painters called "The Ten." Developing a highly personal style based on Impressionistic light and color, Benson's figural compositions are among his greatest works. Painted in 1903 and imbued with a brilliant sense of light and spirited, broken brushwork, Two Little Girls is an endearing portrait of the artist's nieces that demonstrates Benson at the height of his talents.
Interior portraits such as the present work were complements to Benson's celebrated depictions of women and children out of doors. While the interior portraits tended to be more formally rendered, Two Little Girls is exemplary in its tenderness, which recalls that of Benson's depictions of his family in the environs near his house in North Haven, Maine.
The present work is a tender portrait, depicting Rosamond and Ruth Benson, the daughters of Benson's brother, Harry. According to Faith Andrews Bedford, "Harry and Frank had always been close. By the time each married and started families they lived but a few blocks from each other in Salem where Harry would later become mayor. Frank lived in the large home on Salem Common in which they'd grown up and Harry lived a few blocks away at No. 7 Hamilton Street. Their children were constant companions. Frank's youngest daughter, Sylvia, was born in 1898, the same year as Harry's oldest, Rosamond. When Harry and his wife had two more daughters, Ruth and Rebecca, the four girls became inseparable: in and out of each others' houses constantly."
In the present work, Benson's beloved nieces are seated and look directly at the viewer, Ruth with a playful smile. Benson positions the girls close to one another, not only expressing their sororal bond, but also exhibiting his mastery of light and brushwork in their beautifully rendered white dresses. He adeptly captures the texture of these frilly frocks and the layering of the folds of fabric by interweaving broken, discernible brushstrokes of varied tones of cream and ivory. These expanses of finery are broken only by the girl's sashes, blue and pink respectively, which correspond to the color of the oversized bows in their hair. Benson echoes these hues, as well as the browns and blacks of the girls tights, in the background of the work, adding cohesion to the composition and underscoring his 1948 comment that, "I grew up with a generation of art students who believed that it was actually immoral to depart in any way from nature when you were painting. It was not until after I was thirty and had been working seriously for more than ten years that it came to me, the idea that the design was what mattered...Some men never discover this. And it is to this that I lay the credit of such success as I have had. For people in general have a sense of beauty, and know when things are right. They don't know that they have, but they recognize great painting. And design is the only thing that matters." (as quoted in W.H. Gerdts, American Impressionism, New York, 1984, p. 217) Indeed, Benson closely crops the composition to focus on the sitters, allowing their dresses to run off the canvas. This imbues the work with a sense of naturalism and spontaneity as does the quick brushwork of the loosely rendered background, which acts as a foil for the high finish of the girls and their billowy dresses.
Confident works such as Two Little Girls 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 portraits among his finest Impressionist works.