FRANK WESTON BENSON (1862–1951)
Portrait of a Young Girl, Mary Estes Smith, 1909
Oil on canvas, 44 1/2 x 33 in.s
Signed and dated (at lower left): Frank W. Benson / 1909.
EX COLL.: the family of the sitter, and by descent, until the present
Benson’s portrait of Mary Estes Smith is a quintessential example of the artist’s specialty as a portraitist of young girls. The child was the daughter of Reverend William Austin Smith and his wife Annie Breed Smith. Rev. Smith was an Episcopal priest. The family lived a quiet life. William Smith was a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, who graduated from Harvard College in 1895 and obtained his divinity degree in 1898 from Seabury Divinity School in Faribault, Minnesota. From 1899 to 1903, he served as assistant minister at St. John’s Church, Providence, Rhode Island. Smith married Annie Breed Smith (also a Smith), a native of Lynn, Massachusetts in 1904. The couple moved to Milwaukee, where, for eight years, Reverend Smith was rector of St. Paul’s Church, the largest Episcopal church in Wisconsin. In 1911, the family returned east where Smith served as Rector of Christ Church in Springfield, Massachusetts. Reverend Smith, plagued by a delicate constitution, died in 1922. Annie Breed Smith survived him, living until 1949. Mary Estes Smith, born in 1905, was the couple’s eldest child.
In the present portrait Mary wears the kind of white dress that Benson painted repeatedly, an opportunity, in the tradition of Claude Monet, for a tour de force exploration of the qualities of color and light reflected in the deceptive simplicity of white. A look through Benson’s oeuvre of 1895 to 1915 confirms the artist’s fascination with girls and women in romantic white frocks. The presence of such private commissions as this in Benson’s oeuvre, coincident with his commitment to a high-keyed outdoor impressionism, serves as a reminder of the financial realities of the artist’s life. Benson’s Salem family was comfortable, but not rich, their fortunes grounded in the mercantile activities of early nineteenth-century Massachusetts, not in the railroad building and manufacturing that created enormous wealth after the Civil War. There was no cultural latitude for a son of Salem to be anything less than self-supporting. Throughout his career Benson earned a living from his art, paying careful heed to finances and always mindful of the need to support his wife and four children.