The investigation of landscape, nature and ecology in contemporary art has its roots, in part, in the legacy of Romanticism and the search for man's place within the world.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Artist: Frank W. Benson - Works on Paper

Few artists have experienced as much success in their own lifetime as frank w. benson (1862–1951). Within five years of returning from studying at the Academie Julian in Paris in 1885, Benson had secured an appointment at the Museum School in Boston and established himself as a successful portraitist and painter of stunning interiors with figures. Ten years later, shortly after joining “The Ten American Painters,” his plein air works were not only winning critical acclaim at exhibitions, but also garnering numerous national and international awards and prizes. These sun-drenched canvases of his children on the hillsides of their summer home on Maine’s North Haven Island are some of America’s best-loved and most frequently reproduced paintings.

It is notable, however, that while these painting made Benson famous, his later works on paper made him financially secure.

Fig. 1: Bluebills, 1915. Ed. 100. Intaglio engraving.
19 x 15 1/2 inches. Printed by the Elson Art Publishing Company. Private collection.

As a boy, Benson loved tramping through the marshes near his Salem, Massachusetts, home, observing the numerous and varied wildfowl. His early paintings of birds convinced him that he had a calling to be an ornithological illustrator in the manner of Audubon. Fortunately for the art world, his career expanded to encompass a wide variety of subjects, from landscape to still life, interiors lit by firelight to impressionist paintings of his family’s summer life. When his children began to leave home, however, Benson returned to his favorite
motif: wild birds and the sporting life. As he often advised his daughter Eleanor, also an artist, “Paint what you love.”

Fig 3: Iris and Lilies, 1922. Watercolor on paper. 14 1/8 x 20 5/8 inches. Private collection. Comparing Benson’s watercolors to those of Monet, a critic wrote, “Perhaps following the Frenchman’s distinguished example, Mr. Benson has constructed on a summer’s day in Maine a watercolor that could not fail to attract a painter’s attention.”

During the first twenty years of his career, Benson was best known for his paintings in oil. While he had been dashing off sketches and wash drawings of his hunting companions and birds for many years, most were simply given away to friends. By 1912, Benson had begun to seriously consider the techniques of this medium and decided to show some of his recent black-and-white wash drawings at The Ten’s annual New York show. The response was enthusiastic and immediate. Although a critic praised Benson’s portrait of his two daughters depicted in dappled light and admired his Vermeer-inspired study of his daughter in a yellow mandarin coat, he was most enthusiastic about Benson’s “new direction,” citing that “[t]he three drawings…are suggestive notes that…express the character and movements of these fowls.”1

Of the mastery Benson had developed over nearly twenty years of experimenting with this medium another critic noted, “Every essential of good art is there. Always there is good design. There is beauty of line. There is elimination of all save that which is necessary. There is a fine sense of values. The medium is a wash of ink with beautiful gradations which gives one a sense of color.”2

The popularity of Benson’s wash drawings over the next few years was so overwhelming that, in an effort to satisfy all his collectors, Benson allowed the Elson Art Publishing Company to reproduce a limited edition of seven of his wildfowl drawings. The subtle gradations of tone that Benson achieved with black-and-white wash were accurately reproduced in this set of prints [Fig. 1]. In a publication of their own the same year, The Kennedy Gallery noted that “the success of this series of remarkable drawings…is explained by the fact that they are the result of lifelong observation and the expression of mature genius.”3

Fig. 2: The Gunners’ Blind, 1921. Paff. No. 204. Ed. 150. Etching on paper, 77/8 x 9 inches. Private collection. This sparkling print captures the gunners standing out in sharp relief against a dramatic sky. Of this magnificent plate a critic once wrote to Benson with the mistaken perception,
“I see you are etching in color now.”

The summer after the first exhibition of his wash drawings, Benson took up another black-and-white medium–etching. Perhaps heartened by the response to his drawings, possibly heeding reviews that had begun to fault The Ten’s “same old things,” or perhaps desiring a new personal challenge, Benson began experimenting with the demanding art of printmaking.

In 1915, at the urging of some friends, Benson slipped a few etchings and drypoints into a one-man show at the Guild of Boston Artists. While everyone appreciated Benson’s oils and wash drawings, it was his prints that astonished gallery-goers and critics alike. The Boston critic William Howe Downes wrote, “He is an original and remarkable etcher…. To say the etchings are as good in their way as the paintings is the highest praise possible…. The very ecstasy of flight is expressed in the swift gliding of these birds in the air. It is as natural as breathing; and to see them flying is to feel that you, too, could fly.”4

Fig. 4: Wintry Marshes, date unclear. Watercolor on paper. 16 1/2 x 21 1/2 inches. Private collection; photo courtesy of Childs Gallery. Cool blues and lavender suffuse this painting of ducks coming in for a landing on a wintry marsh.

The response was electric. The twenty prints Benson hung in the show as an afterthought sold out in a week. Just as his wash drawings had been highly praised, so too this new medium attracted instant attention.

He was granted one-man shows throughout America; numerous art magazines featured articles on his etchings; he won award after award; and many collectors had standing orders for any etching he might complete. Called the ‘Dean of the American Etchers’ and ‘Master of the Sporting Print,’5 Benson ultimately created 359 etching and drypoint scenes of wildfowl and the sportsmen who sought them.

Using the language of the etcher’s needle, Benson transformed decades of hunting and fishing experiences into exquisitely rendered etchings. Whatever the location, the harmony between setting and subject is palpable. Benson’s compositions balance open spaces, middle values (often conveyed by cross-hatching), and dark solid shapes to set the contrast in his etchings. His use of the burnisher and scraper effectively produced tonal and luminous effects such as the reflective quality of the still water in The Gunners’ Blind [Fig. 2]. Benson’s meticulous handling of “color” ranged from pale gray to rich, velvety black, creating the mood and atmosphere of a cool New England dusk or a sultry noonday in Florida.

Fig. 5: Old Tom, 1923. Watercolor on paper. 20 1/16 x 14 1/16 inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Benson painted this watercolor of
Tom Nickerson, his longtime friend and the caretaker of his hunting
retreat at Eastham on Cape Cod’s Nauset Marsh.

Explaining his ability to accurately portray wild birds, Benson once said, “Every artist must see things in his own way. He will do this as the Japanese have done it for centuries: study some object in nature until he can draw it from memory by repeated practice.

In that way I learned how birds appear in flight, watching them by the hour, returning to the studio to make drawings, then back
to the birds to make corrections.”6

In 1921, attempting to capture the immediacy of images from his shooting and fishing outings, Benson took up watercolor. Beginning with a light informal study of his friend, the artist Willard Metcalf, sitting beside a salmon river in Canada’s Gaspé Peninsula, over the next thirty years Benson’s watercolor output eventually numbered over 570.

When he began exhibiting his new watercolors, the response was again enthusiastic. Commenting on yet another new direction for the artist, a critic wrote, “He has great knowledge of the limitations of aquarelle, knowing when to stress his medium or to have respect for the beauty of the white surface on which he is working, or with a brush full of color, express a brilliant note of sunlight through foliage.”7

Fig. 6: Old Tom, 1926. Etching on paper. 14 x 9 inches. The author of a book on Benson’s etchings called this portrait “one of the most majestic figure subjects ever etched which for eloquence and power can only be compared with the greatest of Millet’s powerful presentations of the human form.”

Benson could not keep up with the demand for his watercolors. “I have to refuse [requests for paintings],” Benson lamented to a New York dealer, “much as I should like to send [one] whenever I am asked.”8 To a museum curator he bemoaned the fact that “it is an awful thing trying to keep up with the current exhibitions!”9

Considering the overwhelming success of his watercolors, it is amusing to read that Benson initially disliked the medium. “I had always looked upon watercolors rather indifferently, most of the ones I had seen had been soft and pretty,” he said. “But, I came to realize that the medium was one which could be exceedingly strong and expressive.”10

Fig. 8: Man with a Gaff, 1925. Drypoint on paper, Paff. No. 247. Ed. 150. 1 13/4 x 9 3/4 inches. Private collection; photograph courtesy of Berry-Hill Galleries. Some of Benson’s best etchings are subtle. In this etching of a Canadian guide, Benson did not add extraneous matter such as horizon, landscape, and clouds. He refined the etching through a process of five trials before he was satisfied.
While some of Benson’s watercolors are landscapes or studies of flowers [Fig. 3], most are of wild birds and hunting or fishing scenes [Fig. 4]. Benson’s spontaneous works also served as inspirations or studies for etchings later produced in his studio. When one studies the watercolor Old Tom [Fig. 5] and the etching that was done three years later [Fig. 6], it is clear that the etching is not so much a copy of the painting as an interpretation. In comparing the two images, one notices that Tom is closer to the viewer in the painting than in the etching. Small elements of the landscape have been changed: a tuft of grass in the watercolor becomes a grass-topped dune in the etching and a thin line of ocean and bare sky behind the figure is added. In the watercolor, the band of ocean is deeper and the sky is full of geese.

Likewise, when Benson sketched one of his guides keeping watch over the evening stew, he used the image not only for a richly landscaped watercolor [Fig. 7], but also for a subtle etching of the same man waiting for the moment when he will be needed to gaff a salmon [Fig. 8].

Each time Benson moved in a new direction with his art, success followed him, creating a demand for his work that continues to this day. And all this from producing images of what he loved most in life.

Fig. 7: Boiling the Kettle, 1923. Watercolor on paper. 14 1/4 x 20 1/4 inches. Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago; Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection.

Faith Andrews Bedford is guest curator of the exhibition Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist. Author of the 1994 biography Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist (Rizzoli) and a frequent writer and lecturer on the painter, her most recent book is The Sporting Art of Frank W. Benson (Godine, 2000). For more information, please see Mrs. Andrews Bedford’s resource

The exhibition, Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, through February 28, 2001. For further information, call 978.745.1876, or learn more at

1 Unsourced newspaper clipping, 23 March l9l2. Museum Scrapbooks. (Boston) Museum School Archives.
2 Bulletin of the Detroit Art Museum. April, l9l4. As quoted in the Boston Herald, 3 May l9l4.
3 "Frank W. Benson’s American Wildfowl Plates,” Catalogue of an Exhibition
of Etchings, Drypoints and Drawings by Frank W. Benson, N. A., Kennedy and Company, New York, l9l5.
4 Boston Herald, February 9, l9l5.
5 First mentioned by Childe Reece in an article entitled, “Frank W. Benson,"
in Prints, Vol. IV, and No. 4, May l934, p. 1.
6 Frank W. Benson, “Twenty-five Years of Etching,” Christian Science Monitor,
5 July, 1941
7 Boston Transcript, 2 May l922
8 Ibid.
9 FWB to Edward Duff Balkan. 20 February l924. Archives of American Art. Carnegie Papers.
10 Boston Sunday Herald, 9 June l935.
11 Chamberlain, Samuel, “Frank W. Benson—The Etcher.” Print Collectors Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 2, April, l938. p. l79.
12 Boston Transcript, n.d., l923. Archives of American Art. Guild of Boston Artists Papers. Roll MB52.
13 Morgan, Charles Lemon as quoted in the Boston Sunday Post, 27 September l93l.

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