One of the most successful painters working in Boston during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Frank Benson melded the light and coloristic concerns of Impressionism with the solid draftsmanship, structured designs, and fine craftsmanship associated with academicism––an approach that collectors and critics of his day found highly appealing. A dedicated artist who created his own niche in a highly competitive art world, Benson explored a variety of motifs that reflected his personal life and interests, ranging from joyous portrayals of his wife and children to sparkling views of the New England coastline and countryside where he spent his summers. Benson also set himself apart from his contemporaries by creating classic sporting scenes and images of wildfowl, deftly melding accuracy of representation with his enduring concern for light. He also applied his brush to sensuous still lifes featuring exotic family heirlooms. Benson’s aesthetic versatility was also manifested through his use of different media, as apparent by his innate command of oil, watercolor, and etching.
Born into one of the oldest families in Salem, Massachusetts, Benson was the son of George Wiggin Benson, an affluent cotton merchant, and his wife, Elisabeth Frost Poole, an amateur painter. Along with his five siblings, he grew up in a comfortable house owned by his grandfather, Samuel Benson, a sea captain in the China trade who accumulated an enviable collection of Asian antiques during his travels to the Far East. Having been exposed to art and culture while growing up, Benson decided to pursue an artistic career at age sixteen. He subsequently received a thorough grounding in traditional painting techniques at the Boston Museum School, where he studied under Otto Grundman and Frederic Crowninshield from 1880 to 1883.
In 1883, accompanied by his friend and classmate Edmund C. Tarbell (1862–1938), Benson went to Paris to refine his skills as a figure painter at the Académie Julian under Gustave-Rodolphe Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. In the summer of 1884, he investigated plein-air painting techniques while visiting Concarneau, Brittany, a popular gathering place for artists of all nationalities. Benson was no doubt pleased when his After the Storm (1884; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts), a portrayal of a Breton peasant woman and her daughter standing by the sea, was featured in the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy in London in 1885.
Benson first delved into teaching in 1881, when he held evening drawing classes for the town of Salem. He continued this pursuit upon returning from Europe in 1885, giving instruction in drawing and painting techniques at the Portland Society of Art in Maine in 1887 and 1888. In 1889, Benson began a lengthy tenure at the Museum School (where his friend Tarbell had also received an appointment), initially teaching the antique class. Four years later, he was appointed an instructor at his alma mater, teaching drawing and painting classes until 1912, when he changed his status to that of a visiting instructor. During these years, Benson undertook portrait commissions from well-to-do Bostonians in addition to painting outdoor landscapes on seasonal visits to New Hampshire. He also began exhibiting his work locally, as well as in New York at the annuals of the Society of American Artists and at the National Academy of Design, where he would later be elected an associate member (1897) and a full academician (1905). Following his marriage in 1888 to Ellen Pierson (who also hailed from Salem), Benson settled in his hometown but maintained a studio at various locales in Boston until 1944.
Throughout the late 1880s and early 1890s, Benson focused his attention on intimate depictions of genteel young women in well-appointed interiors illuminated by subdued artificial light, as in works such as By Firelight (1889; private collection). However, as he became increasingly interested in the effects of outdoor luminosity, Benson changed course and after 1898 turned his attention to dazzling, impressionist-inspired images of family members (notably his wife, son, and three daughters) relaxing in idyllic sun-dappled settings, as in The Sisters (1899; Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection). Throughout these years, Benson exhibited his work in solo and group exhibitions at local venues such as the Boston Art Club, the St. Botolph Club, and Chase’s Gallery. His profile on the national art scene was given a major boost through his membership in the Ten American Painters, an informal exhibiting organization composed of well-established artists (primarily Impressionists) from New York and Boston who banded together in opposition to the restrictive policies set forth by the now more conservative Society of American Artists. Along with his fellow members––Tarbell, J. Alden Weir, Robert Reid, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Edward Simmons, Willard Metcalf, Joseph De Camp, Childe Hassam, John Henry Twachtman, and after Twachtman’s death in 1902, William Merritt Chase––Benson displayed some of his finest work at the annuals of The Ten, which continued to exhibit together until 1918. Benson also participated in other major group shows at museums and galleries throughout the country. In fact, his paintings received so many awards and honors, including silver medals at the Paris Exposition (1900) and the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo (1901) and a gold medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, held in St. Louis in 1904, that he became known as the most medaled American artist of his day.
Benson made a good living from the sale of his art, so much so that in 1906 he purchased Wooster Farm, a colonial farmhouse on the island of North Haven, Maine, where he and his family had been spending their summers since 1901. In the ensuing years, Benson’s commercial success continued as he expanded his repertoire of media and motifs. Indeed, in the wake of the Armory Show of 1913, as the stylish Boston School paintings of lovely young ladies came to be seen as outmoded, Benson (in keeping with the business acumen he inherited from his father and grandfather) shifted his iconographical concerns from the feminine to the masculine domain by turning his attention to fishing and hunting themes.