A Rainy Day: Frank W. Benson's Maine Interiors

But Maine is as famous for its fog as it is for its shimmering sunlight. Wooster Farm was often shrouded in blankets of gray mist. Days of rain frequently forced Benson to put aside his plein air studies and move indoors. That said, his North Haven interiors are rare-only five are known to exist. The earliest, Rainy Day of 1906, depicts in front of the fireplace in the living room. A subdued pal­ette of blues and creams cre­ates a mood quite different from his outdoor works (Fig. 1). Antiques and objets d'art were an important aspect of the family furnishings; small sketches, pewter candlesticks, and vases adorn the mantel­piece. Although the composition seems unstud­ied, it is cleverly arranged. Architectural elements offering strong horizontal and vertical lines are complemented by the curves of the mirror, the Canton jar, and Elisabeth's figure curled up in the rattan chair. The dark, horizontal mass of the fireplace is echoed by the painting on the wall of the back parlor and offset by the tall, narrow doorway through which is glimpsed a rain-streaked window.

A few years later Benson again painted Elisabeth, her head bent over a bit of needlework, posed against a window that admits the pale light of a rainy day (Fig. 5). Although merely a quick sketch, Ellen Benson liked this watercolor so much that her hus­band inscribed it to her. It is one of the few known watercolors done before 1921, the year Benson began his prolific output in that medium.

The year Elisabeth posed for this watercolor, her mother wrote in the log the family kept from 1907 until 1940, their last year at Wooster Farm, "Frank is painting on the living room walls again."4 Tired of the tattered wallpaper in the living room, Benson and the children had torn it off. Once a coat of fresh plaster was applied, he began painting frescoes on the walls. Thereafter, on days when the fog hid the sea and hills from view, the Bensons could enjoy a room ringed with images of rocky shores and splashing waves, deep spruce woods, and blue skies with billowing clouds. Although a hundred years have passed since Benson painted these mu­rals, their fresh bright colors remain (Figs. 6, 7).

Two years after her husband transformed the living room, Ellen wrote in the log, "Frank started to paint Eleanor in her yellow Chinese coat."5 In Young Girl by a Window, Eleanor's mandarin coat glows in the soft light as she poses in the same rattan chair in which Elisabeth curled up for an afternoon of reading in Rainy Day. The canvas (Fig. 8) is an excellent example of the influence of the work of Jan Vermeer on Benson's interiors. Phillip Hale, Benson's colleague at the Museum School, had stimulated serious recon­sideration of Vermeer's work among his fellow Boston artists, particularly his treatment of light and subtle tonalism. Many of Benson's interiors exhibit similarities to the Dutch artist's work in the arrangement of the furniture, drapery, and acces­sories and in the quality of the paint surface.6 In Young Girl by a Window, Eleanor's pose recalls Vermeer's model who reaches toward the window in Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, a print of which Benson kept in his studio.

The following summer, Benson painted his youngest daughter Sylvia in one of the few pictures of her without her sisters. The diffused light in My Daughter highlights the pattern of Sylvia's dress; it gleams on her auburn hair, the twisted strand of seed pearls, and the broad brim of her summer hat (Fig. 9). The round shade pull and its cord both echo the curved elements of Sylvia's hat, sleeve, face, and necklace-and anchor her to the unseen window.

"This latest painting is . . . destined to rank with the great portrait paintings of the world, not only because of its technical excellence as a picture but also as a type of American girl," a Boston critic wrote of Sylvia's portrait.7 Another critic compared the painting to the work of Abbott Handerson Thayer, whose models were frequently portrayed as angels or Madonnas. He noted that Thayer cre­ated images of women for "adoration and worship...a noble ideal," but that Benson, "while not present­ing less of the grace and beauty of young woman­hood, makes a natural (girl), such a one as we might expect, in rare good fortune, to meet."8

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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