The coast of North Haven is where Frank Benson (1862-1951) executed the paintings he is most famous for – he went there every summer from 1898 to the 1920’s with his wife and children, who were his favorite models. Sunlight, the luminous painting owned by the IMA, makes no exception, representing the artist’s daughter Eleanor in a landscape not far from Wooster Farm, the Bensons’ vacation house. You will recognize her silhouette, bathed in sunlight, amongst other paintings in the exhibition Impressionist Summers: Frank W. Benson’s North Haven, if you have the chance to go to the Farnsworth Art Museum this summer.
In North Haven, Frank Benson found a way to convey atmospheric effects in his art, creating his most impressionist works. Indeed, the sunlight is the first thing we perceive of this painting, as we are dazzled by the bright whiteness of the girl’s dress and the clear blue summer sky around her. This will to represent the human figure in natural outdoor light is, of course, eminently impressionist. This is what Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were seeking when they were painting together in 1869 at La Grenouillère, the famous restaurant on the Seine where Parisians went to spend their Sundays, bathing and boating.
But Frank W. Benson was American and painted Sunlight forty years later, in 1909, in a specific context that led him to this impressionist yet conservative style. Born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1862, Frank Benson studied in Boston, at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where he became friends with the artists Edmund Tarbell (1862-1939) and Robert Reid (1862-1929), both represented in the collection of the IMA. He is known for his successful academic career: he exhibited regularly at the Boston Art Club and at the National Academy of Design in New York, he taught at the Portland School of Art in Maine and at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Frank Benson is also famous for his participation in the Group of The Ten American Painters and their first exhibition in 1898, which represented a renewal of American painting. Their main influence was Impressionism, which they could have seen at the exhibition the famous French Impressionists dealer Paul Durand-Ruel showed in New-York in 1886, or by travelling to Paris, like Tarbell or Hassam. Benson was also one of these: in 1883 he traveled to the French capital and studied at the Académie Julian, where many foreign artists came to learn under the academic and conservative teaching of Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. This studio was way more accessible than the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and filled with artists from all over Europe and America.
We see clearly in Benson’s painting the gathering of academic principles and impressionist ideas. This mixing of traditional design technique and composition matters, highly important to Benson all throughout his life, and of impressionist touch, colors and subject matter is omnipresent in Sunlight. The figure is surrounded by atmospheric effects, but doesn’t melt in them, her outline stays solid. The composition is strongly fixed with the straight lines of the hill and of the horizon, inside the vertical and narrow format of the canvas, which emphasizes the straightness of the figure. Inside this rigorous design, the apparent brushstrokes and the use of high-key colors testify to the artist’s impressionist technique.
Benson painted many pictures out nearby Wooster Farm, where he could use the old barn as a studio. When he worked there, the artist would often take photographs of outdoor scenes to use as tools and composition models, in order to complete his paintings in the studio afterwards. A photograph representing the almost exact same composition as Sunlight (taken of Eleanor Benson in North Haven, Maine from 1909, and located in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts), along with other photographs very similar to some of his paintings, were found in Benson’s family albums.
Interestingly, this is to be linked with Benson’s use of the same motive again and again in different compositions, as explained by Faith Andrew Bedford (Frank W. Benson, “The Divided Paintings,” American Art Review, Vol. VII, no.4, 1995). Photographs of models posing could be assembled in many different combinations on the canvas. For instance, the isolated figure of Eleanor in Sunlight is part of the group represented in Summer (1909, oil on canvas, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, bequest of Isaac C. Bates), and other figures of this painting exist individually in other paintings: Portrait of Margaret Strong (1909, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.), and Elizabeth and Anna (1909, oil on canvas, private collection). Benson even painted a horizontal version of Sunlight, called Eleanor on the Hilltop (1912, oil on canvas, private collection).
The Farnsworth Art Museum exhibition will be a great chance to observe this, and to try and find links between the different paintings.