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.
A leader of the Boston School of art and a member of "The Ten," Frank Weston Benson is one of the best-known American artists to adapt the Impressionist aesthetic to create his own signature style. Fusing the spontaneity of Claude Monet with a more traditional Academic emphasis on form, he created sun-drenched evocations, the best of which are magnificent depictions of his own children and the bright light of summer. The Reader epitomizes these popular turn-of-the-century paintings of Benson’s children outdoors, and it is also one of the most successful at capturing the luminosity he is known for achieving throughout his career.
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. Tending early in his career toward studio portraits under the glow of an oil lamp or fireplace, Benson started exploring a more Impressionist use of light during his student days in Paris. By the time the artist arrived home from abroad, the acceptance of this new French style was spreading rapidly, and Impressionist exhibitions were being held in multiple American cities.
The beginnings of Benson’s evolution toward his signature American Impressionist style can be seen as early as 1887. The painting In Summer (Private Collection) of that year portrays a profile of Benson’s future wife Ellen in her parents’ backyard, foreshadowing his later habit of depicting family outdoors. Two years later, when the artist was promoted to instructor at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, his budding family began to take summer vacations further afield in New England. On trips to Dublin, New Hampshire, Benson had the opportunity to experiment with Impressionism by frequently painting directly from nature. In fact, in New Hampshire, he created his first plein air painting of his family, entitled Mother and Children (Unlocated) and featuring his wife Ellen, daughter Eleanor and son George in a flowery meadow. By the time he painted The Sisters of 1899 (Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois), featuring his younger two children, Elizabeth and Sylvia, Benson’s style had evolved to incorporate a dazzlingly bright palette and dappled, energetic brushwork.
Beginning in 1901, North Haven, a 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.” (Faith Andrews Bedford, Impressionist Summers: Frank W. Benson’s 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. Embodied in works like The Reader, it was during those summers in Maine that, according to critics of the period, Benson finally achieved his goal of becoming a truly accomplished Impressionist. Breaking away from winters spent inside his Boston studio, Benson used the time at North Haven to create his happiest and most energetic paintings. Sheila Dugan explains, “Benson’s images of life at Wooster Farm highlight its idyllic qualities and convey the energy, freedom, and playfulness of his youthful subjects. The paintings give no hint of the fog banks that often roll in on summer afternoons or of the damp gray days that seem to last for weeks. When he painted his family, Benson’s interest in the outdoor light and atmosphere extended only to bright, clear, calm weather.” (Frank W. Benson: The Impressionist Years, New York, 1988, p. 17)
In the present work, the artist depicts his eldest daughter Eleanor enjoying a beautiful summer day reading outside while perched under the shade of her parasol. Using dabs of bright white pigment, Benson creates glints of sunshine on the back of her neck and highlights in her hair and dress, which viscerally evoke the heat and beating sun of the season. At the same time, the verdant greens and cooler tones under the shadows of Eleanor’s umbrella capture the pleasure of leisure in the shade on such a blistering summer afternoon. In addition to this contrast between sun and shadow, the composition also effectively balances linear and natural forms, juxtaposing the stark vertical lines of the white picket fence in the background with the graceful curves of Eleanor’s body and the draped sweep of the umbrella. Pops of red flowers add further visual interest to the largely green and yellow palette of the peaceful painting. Indeed, Dugan contends, “Benson’s main intention is one of blending the components of the woman with the surrounding floral environment, in essence establishing her as the main flower among all the others.” (Frank W. Benson: The Impressionist Years, p. 22) It is through this convergence of portraiture and landscape that “Benson was able to capture the very spirit of life, the joie de vivre, in his style of Impressionism.” (The Art of Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist, Salem, Massachusetts, 2000, p. 29)
As with many of his plein air compositions, Benson used photography as an aid for the present composition, capturing the fleeting moment for reference when adding the finishing touches to the oil back in his Boston studio. Not only a consummate painter, Benson had an astounding ability to exactly frame a photograph to mimic what he sought to capture during his hours painting out-of-doors. However, despite working from the acute detail of a photo, The Reader is certainly not a photorealistic work. In fact, Eleanor herself once said, “He always made us more beautiful than we were.” (The Art of Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist, p. 29) Rather, his paintings, such as The Reader, are a unique combination of impressionist and formal technique in a style long considered distinctly Benson, who himself was both a member of the divergent Impressionist group, The Ten, and a full Academician. In 1921, Lorinda Munson Bryant wrote, “Mr. Benson’s brushwork has caught a certain brightness of colour and light that speaks a language of its own. No one could mistake his manner of entangling the sunlight in the hair and garments of his open air figures.” (Frank W. Benson: The Impressionist Years, p. 45)
With this balance of realism and impressionism, sunlight and shadow, The Reader is a prime example of the Maine summer paintings that embody the pinnacle of Benson’s career-long play with 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. Benson’s North Haven, Rockland, Maine, 2012, p. 62)