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Property from the May Family Collection

The Hill Top

The Hill Top
signed and dated 'F.W. Benson./1914.' and inscribed 'To Elisabeth and Max.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
40 x 32 in. (101.6 x 81.3 cm.)
Painted in 1914.
The artist.
Elisabeth Benson and Charles M.A. Rogers, gift from the above, 1924.
Joan Michelman, Ltd., New York.
Owings-Dewey Fine Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1986.
F.W. Benson, Modern Masters of Etching, London, 1925, p. 86, no. 41.
F.A. Bedford, Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist, New York, 1994, pp. 10, 106, 155-56, 174, pl. 98, illustrated.
Boston, Massachusetts, Guild of Boston Artists, 1915.
Cincinnati, Ohio, Cincinnati Art Museum, 22nd Annual Exhibition of American Art, May 22-July 31, 1915, p. 12, no. 60, illustrated.
Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1916.
Paris, France, Luxembourg Palace, Musée National d'Esposition des Artistes de L'Ecole Américaine, 1919.
Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Benson and Tarbell Retrospective, 1939.
Huntsville, Alabama, Huntsville Museum of Art; New York, The Lotos Club, The May Family Collection of American Paintings, February 7-May 1, 1988, pp. 12-13, 57, no. 1, illustrated.
New York, Spanierman Gallery, Frank W. Benson: The Impressionist Years, May 11-June 11, 1988, pp. 25, 68-69, pl. 11, illustrated.
New York, Berry-Hill Galleries, Frank W. Benson: A Retrospective, May 17-June 24, 1989, no. 41, illustrated.
Portland, Maine, Portland Museum of Art, April 15-September 30, 1992.
Dallas, Texas, Dallas Museum of Art, July-September 2006, on loan.

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Tylee Abbott
Tylee Abbott Vice President, Head of American Art

Lot Essay

A leader of the Boston School of art and a member of "The Ten," Frank Weston Benson is one of the most-celebrated American artists to adapt the Impressionist aesthetic into a bespoke signature style. Born and raised in Salem, Massachusetts, Benson first studied art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston before traveling in 1883 to the Académie Julian in Paris where he started to explore Impressionist techniques. Following his studies, Benson returned home and took up professions as both a portrait painter and teacher, eventually developing his hallmark plein-air style of painting by the 1890s. Fusing the spontaneity of Claude Monet with a more traditional Academic emphasis on form, he created sun-drenched evocations, the best of which are intimate depictions of his own children and the bright light of summer. Depicting his daughter Elisabeth, The Hill Top epitomizes these magnificent turn-of-the-century paintings of Benson’s children outdoors.

Benson painted The Hill Top on the Benson family farm located on the island of North Haven, Maine. Beginning in 1901, the twelve square-mile island in Penobscot Bay, Maine, fulfilled Benson’s desire for a remote retreat. Recalling his first impression of the island, Benson said, “From the moment we saw it, North Haven felt like home.” He remembered looking over to his wife and children and thinking, “This is it. This is where I want to paint her. And them.” (as quoted in F.A. Bedford, Impressionist Summers: Frank W. Bensons North Haven, New York, 2012, p. 23) Benson and his family returned to North Haven Island every year and eventually bought Wooster Farm, a rambling homestead bordered on three sides by the sea. Breaking away from winters spent inside his Boston studio, Benson used the time at North Haven to create his happiest and most energetic paintings.

The Hill Top is one of nineteen paintings by Benson that William Gerdts describes as a “masterpiece of outdoor painting.” (Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist, New York, 1994, p. 10) The majority of the other examples given this designation are in institutions, including The Sisters (1899, Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois); Eleanor (1901, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence); Calm Morning (1904, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); Children in the Woods (1905, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); Eleanor (1907, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); Portrait of My Daughters (1907, Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts); Evening Light (1908, Cincinnati Museum of Art, Ohio); Summer (1909, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.) and Afternoon in September (1913, Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, New York).

David Dearinger contends that the present work closely relates to Benson’s Sunlight (1909, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana), which features the artist’s oldest daughter Eleanor. Dearinger explains, “In certain ways, The Hill Top might be seen as a pendant to Sunlight. Elizabeth [sic] faces the opposite direction from Eleanor in Sunlight, is dressed in deep blue instead of white, and wears a wide-brimmed hat. Like Eleanor, though, her entire figure is seen in profile, standing and silhouetted against blue sky and white clouds.” (The May Family Collection of American Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Huntsville, Alabama, 1988, p. 12)

Benson painted another example of Elisabeth circa 1914 titled My Daughter (Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan), as well as a larger version of the present scene titled On Lookout Hill (circa 1914, Detroit Athletic Club, Michigan) that was praised by contemporary critic William Howe Downes as “among his best works.” (as quoted in F.A. Bedford, Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist, New York, 1994, p. 155)

With its balance of realism and impressionism, sunlight and shadow, The Hill Top is a prime example of the Maine summer paintings that embody the pinnacle of Benson’s career-long exploration of light. It is as if he captured in this outwardly simple scene the two words that Henry James called the most beautiful in the English language: summer afternoon. As Faith Andrews Bedford describes, “These carefree, sun-drenched paintings—inspired by the light, life, and landscape of Wooster Farm—were but a passing moment, a brief coda in a career that spanned more than sixty years. But the underlying theme of these works is seen in everything he did. He once explained, ‘I simply follow the light, where it comes from, where it goes.’” (Impressionist Summers: Frank W. Bensons North Haven, Rockland, Maine, 2012, p. 62)

Benson gifted The Hill Top to the sitter, Elisabeth Benson and her husband Charles M.A. “Max” Rogers as a wedding present in 1924. Prior to the gift, the artist exhibited the work at prominent venues including the Cincinnati Art Museum, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Luxemburg Palace Paris, France, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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