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 prominent member of the group of painters called "The Ten." Benson's figural compositions are among his greatest works as they demonstrate a highly personal style enhanced by Impressionistic light and color. Painted in 1915 with spirited, broken brushwork, Portrait of Gertrude Russell is exemplary in its tenderness, which recalls that of Benson's depictions of his own family, for which he is best-known. An endearing portrait of a young girl from a prestigious family, Portrait of Gertrude Russell represents Benson at the height of his talents.
Gertrude Russell hailed from a long line of prominent and pioneering Massachusetts residents. Her mother's family emanated from Salem where they participated in the China Trade functioning as ship candlers from Canton and other China ports. Later in the nineteenth century the family moved from Salem to North Andover, Massachusetts to manage a family owned woolen mill in town. Her paternal grandfather, a member of Congress from the Seventh Massachusetts District, was the first person to manufacture paper from wood pulp in the United States. He established his first pulp mills in Franklin, New Hampshire and Bellows Falls, Vermont. Later he participated in the formation of International Paper and became its first president. In addition to his interests in paper production, Gertrude's grandfather bred stock on his Lakeview Farm in North Andover, Massachusetts; at one point he accumulated the largest herd of Holsteins in New England, as well as the largest herd held by one individual in the United States.
Gertrude's father operated many of his family's paper mills under the name Russell Company. Together with Endicott Peabody, the famed headmaster at Groton, he created the Brooks School, named after Phillips Brooks, rector of Trinity Church in Boston, and donated his farm and buildings to the campus. The Brooks School still stands on the original land donated by the Russell family in North Andover and the Russell family's home now serves as a campus dormitory. The Russell family maintained a Commonwealth Avenue townhouse in Boston as their principal address, while using their summer home 'Oakland' on Lakeview Farm as a summer residence. With its grand architecture and sweeping landscape overlooking the water, Oakland, later the Brooks School, calls to mind Benson's own Wooster Farm on the island of North Haven, Maine.
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, Portrait of Gertrude Russell is exemplary in its freedom of expression and sympathetic portrayal. In the present work, eleven-year-old Gertrude sits cross-legged with a book in her lap, gazing shyly at the viewer. The artist adeptly captures the texture of her frilly frock 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 Gertrude's pink sash that corresponds to the color of her oversized hair bow. Benson echoes these hues, in the fabrics folded over the back of the bench and in traces of the rug pattern, adding cohesion to the composition and underscoring the artist's 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 sitter, allowing the bench 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 Gertrude and her finery. The artist was particularly sensitive to the nuances of a fine composition, regarding it as the most important quality of a painting. He later explains to his daughter, "A picture is merely an experiment in design. If the design is pleasing the picture is good...Few appreciate that what makes them admire a picture is the design made by the painter." (Advice on Painting from F.W.B. Notes Taken after Criticism by E.B.L., 22 February 1936, unpublished manuscript).
Gertrude sat for the artist both at her home on Commonwealth Avenue as well as in Benson's studio nearby. Like other painters trained in a traditional academic setting, Benson composed his works methodically, occasionally using photographs as an aid. In Portrait of Gertrude Russell Benson likely referred to photographs of his young model. Using photographs as a guide for the figure as well as sketching from life in his studio Benson could capture the essence of his beautiful young model and at the same time develop a bold composition.
Confident and charming works such Portrait of Gertrude Russell 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.
Frank W. Benson painting Mother and Children, 1893. From the Collection of Faith Andrews Bedford.
Photograph of a young Gertrude Russell taken at a family home in North Andover, Massachusetts.
Gertrude Russell with her brothers Richard and William at the William Sutton boathouse in Salem, Massachusetts.