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A Ray of “Sunlight”

Our guest blogger today is Anastasia Karpova Tinari, the IMA's Weisenberger Fellow of American Art.

Frank Weston Benson, "Sunlight," 1909. Indianapolis Museum of Art, John Herron Fund.

Frank Weston Benson, “Sunlight,” 1909. Indianapolis Museum of Art, John Herron Fund.

The return of Frank Weston Benson’s Sunlight to the IMA’s American galleries will provide welcome warmth to visitors weary of the winter chill. Shining brightly among the museum’s collection of American Impressionism, Benson’s painting of a female figure standing in front of a crisp, blue sky returns from a loan to the exhibition Impressionist Summers: Frank W. Benson’s North Haven at the Farnsworth Art Museum (FAM) in Rockland, Maine. A handsome catalogue produced by FAM and Skira-Rizzoli accompanied the exhibition, and Sunlight starred prominently by gracing the front cover.

Curated by Faith Andrews Bedford, Impressionist Summers centers on work Frank Benson produced at “Wooster Farm,” an eighteenth-century North Haven farmhouse that served as the artist’s family getaway. By the first summer there in 1901, Benson’s career hallmarks had already been ascertained. A well-known and financially successful artist, co-founder of the Impressionist group “The Ten,” and co-director of Boston’s Museum School, Benson sought a country escape from his busy city life. Maine’s Penobscot Bay provided relaxation and a chance for artistic experimentation. Impressionist paintings like Sunlight, today arguably the most popular of Benson’s work, stemmed from this newfound freedom.

Purchasing Wooster Farm in 1906 allowed the Bensons to convert the barn into a light-filled studio, where the artist completed light-spackled paintings of his family’s active, outdoor lifestyle. While the wispy, dazzling brushstrokes of Sunlight may suggest quickly-captured plein-air painting, Benson carefully staged each composition using his wife and daughters as patient models. The noticeable absence of Benson’s son George in these family paintings fosters discussion around the decorative use of the female figures; however, Faith Andrews Bedford frankly attributes George’s absence to the boy’s inability to sit still. Today, the barnyard studio where Benson finished his outdoor paintings remains intact even though the house has been privately owned since 1950, reminding visitors of Benson’s significance to the area.

Wooster Farm today. North Haven, Maine.

Wooster Farm today. North Haven, Maine.

At the Farnsworth and in the catalogue pages, Sunlight joined three closely-related works painted in the summer of 1909. The monumental Summer, now in the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum of Art, was executed first and inspired the three smaller paintings. Summer shows Benson’s daughters Eleanor and Elisabeth and their two friends Anna Hathaway and Margaret Strong perched on Lookout Hill, a favorite site near Wooster Farm and the same hilltop location as in Sunlight.  Eleanor stands in the same pose as the IMA’s Sunlight: her left hand shielding the sun’s bright light as she surveys the bay.

Frank Weston Benton, "Summer," 1909. Oil on canvas, 36 ½ x 44 ½ in. Bequest of Isaac C. Bates. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design.

Frank Weston Benson, “Summer,” 1909. Bequest of Isaac C. Bates. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design.

Two other related works exist: Margaret (“Gretchen”) Strong (NGA) isolates the right-most figure, while In Summer (private collection) shows the two figures at left of the larger composition. Margaret Strong’s parents loved Benson’s idyllic grouping and commissioned their 17-yr old daughter’s portrait in the same position, while Sunlight and In Summer were likely Benson’s initiatives to satisfy the high demand for these summer scenes.

Frank Weston Benton, "In Summer," 1909. Private Collection.

Frank Weston Benson, “In Summer,” 1909. Private Collection.

Margaret (“Gretchen”) Strong, c. 1909. Gift of Elizabeth Clarke Hayes. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Frank Weston Benson, “Margaret (‘Gretchen’) Strong,” c. 1909. Gift of Elizabeth Clarke Hayes. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Eleanor served as Benson’s model many times throughout his career, but one painting in particular connects back to Sunlight. Painted in the first summer on Wooster Farm, Eleanor (also at RISD Museum of Art) shows the girl eight years younger, already assuming the signature pose of the later painting.

Frank Weston Benson, "Eleanor," 1901. Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 ¼ in. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Gustav Radeke. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design.

Frank Weston Benson, “Eleanor,” 1901. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Gustav Radeke. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design.

In its Impressionist brushwork, motif, and palette, Sunlight parallels Claude Monet’s famous painting Woman with a Parasol of 1875. In both works, the women serve as a highlight and reflection of the landscape, their unadorned dresses beautifully billowing as canvases for the artists to show off dazzling pink and blue hues created by the clear, sunlit sky. The subject of a female figure sheltering sun’s bright rays, whether with hand or parasol, recurs in paintings by Monet, Renoir, and others. A similar painting may have come to Benson’s attention at one of the French Impressionist exhibitions held in 1892, 1895, and 1898 in Boston’s St. Botolph Club, where Benson was a member and had his own one-man show in 1894. Whether a French influence or the vast seaside locale of Wooster Farm inspired Benson’s freedom of experimentation, Sunlight and its related compositions are beloved for Benson’s ability to so perfectly capture the ideals of American freedom and family life.

Claude Monet, "Woman with a Parasol- Madame Monet and Her Son," 1875. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 7/8 in. National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

Claude Monet, “Woman with a Parasol- Madame Monet and Her Son,” 1875. National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

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