from The Magazine ANTIQUES, July/August 2012 |
By the time Frank Weston Benson discovered Maine's North Haven Island in 1900, his career was flourishing. He had been longing for a retreat where he could paint undisturbed for more than a decade. Following his return home to Massachusetts in 1885 from two years at the Académie Julian in Paris, Benson quickly gained notice. In 1888 he submitted his first canvas to the Society of American Artists, a portrait of his fiancée Ellen Perry Peirson titled In Summer (private collection). Admiring the sunlit canvas of Ellen in her mother's garden, a critic wrote that Benson was "a painter of whom much may be expected."1 He was correct: In Summer was chosen for the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889. That same year Benson won his first prize-the Julius Hallgarten at the National Academy of Design-and was also appointed instructor of painting at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts School. He and his close friend Edmund Tarbell soon became co-directors of the school, increasing both its enrollment and renown. Benson combined teaching with portrait commissions and painting stunning interiors with young women lit by the glow of an oil lamp or flickering fire light.
In 1898, frustrated by what he viewed as the Society of American Artists' mediocre shows, Benson joined nine other artists to form a group-dubbed the "Ten" by the press-whose goal was to hold small exhibitions where each artist's finest works could be seen in exquisite settings. But this new exhibition coupled with Benson's increasing responsibilities at the Museum School and growing jury and committee work renewed his resolve to find a summer sanctuary.
Two years later, while visiting Maine's North Haven Island, the Bensons discovered Wooster Farm (Fig. 2). The Federal house was situated on a narrow piece of land surrounded by the sparkling waters of Penobscot Bay. Ellen realized that it offered plenty of room for their four children-Eleanor, Elisabeth, George, and Sylvia-while Benson, spying the large barn, knew it would make a perfect studio (Fig. 3). "From the moment we saw it," Benson later recalled, "Wooster Farm felt like home."2
The Bensons began renting Wooster Farm in 1901 and by 1906 were able to buy the ten-room farmhouse, barn, and about twenty-five acres of land. Although they quickly added plumbing, they never installed electricity. Benson immediately began to create the dazzling paintings of his children that capture the idyllic nature of summer and won him further acclaim. Blending his academic training with his own interpretation of the impressionist works he had seen in Paris, these sun-drenched plein-air works show his children in boats on the sparkling waters of Wooster Cove, reading beneath the dappled shade of an apple tree, or sharing quiet moments in the hush of a forest. His hilltop paintings of his daughters in white dresses posed against August-blue skies are quintessential images of the American girl (Fig. 4). One critic observed, "He sets before us visions of the free life of the open air, with figures of gracious women and lovely children, in a landscape drenched in sweet sunlight, and cooled by refreshing sea breezes."3