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Frank Weston Benson

Born into an old Salem, Massachusetts, family, Benson was encouraged to pursue art by his mother, Elisabeth, a self-described “Sunday painter.” Despite the misgivings of his father, George – who had hoped his eldest son would follow him into business – Benson began his formal training at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1880. Three years later, George Benson gave his son $1,000 and a round-trip ticket to Paris, and sent him off to study at the Académie Julien with the advice to “come home when the money runs out.”

Just before sailing to Europe, Benson undoubtedly attended a Boston showing of works by Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and Sisley. Although the French Impressionists did not hold an exhibition during Benson’s two years in Paris, he had ample opportunity to view their “radical” new paintings in private galleries. The only indication that he might have picked up some of their new techniques is one tiny canvas entitled Paris Parade (date unknown; private collection). Forms dissolve in the brilliant light and bright bits of paint are dashed in with broken brushstrokes giving the whole canvas a shimmering quality. This sunny street scene seems a premonition of the sort of advice that Benson would later give aspiring artists. “Those things which you do when you are freshly inspired and excited by the beauty of what you are seeing before you are important things,” he said. “There is a certain inspiration which comes when you work quickly and surely and [are] enthusiastic about the beauty of the light.”

During Benson’s first year in Paris, works by Manet and Degas were included in an exhibition in New York to raise funds for the Statue of Liberty. A critic’s observation – “All the good painting by the men who will come into notice during the next ten years will be tinged with impressionism” – proved portentous not only for the growing acceptance of the French Impressionists, but for the American artists who would gradually come to admire and adopt this approach to painting. Upon Benson’s return to America, his first entry to the Society of American Artists’ exhibition in New York, In Summer (1887; private collection), was a portrait of his fiancée, Ellen Peirson, seated in a garden. When it was exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889, it was described as “flooded in sunlight.” But, despite acclaim for this and a painting of his wife and children in a flower-strewn meadow, titled Mother and Children (c. 1894; location unknown), the artist was not pleased with his early forays into plein-air painting. He concentrated instead on portraiture and studio works illuminated by candle or firelight.

The year 1889 witnessed two additional milestones for Benson’s career: he received his first award, for his painting Orpheus (c. 1889; location unknown, possibly destroyed in the Salem fire of 1913), and he became an instructor at his alma mater, the Museum School, along with his old friend and classmate Edmund Tarbell. The two men developed the school into one of the outstanding art institutions in the country, held many joint exhibitions, and briefly shared a studio. Along with Joseph DeCamp, they were often referred to as the founders of the Boston School of Painting. Their shared aesthetic is obvious. As one critic noted, “Tarbell, Benson and DeCamp, the Boston giants, alone hold unweariedly aloft the banner of exclusive devotion to the gospel of light...” In 1897, the three Bostonians joined seven other artist friends and resigned from the Society of American Artists to begin holding their own small exhibitions. Benson’s membership in “The Ten” – as the group quickly came to be known – appears to have freed him to shake off the restraint of his award-winning interiors and step into the bright sunshine of the out-of-doors.