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

In Benson's final North Haven interior, Sunny Window, Eleanor strikes a pose reminiscent of the one Elisabeth had assumed ten years ear­lier (Fig. 11). Married by the time the picture was painted, Eleanor later recalled that she had been visiting North Haven when her father came upon her sewing while her baby Nora dozed on a quilt in the warmth of the sunbeams.9 The light from the window suffuses the whole, giving the canvas a shimmering quality. Again, though an apparently unstudied portrayal of Benson's oldest daughter, it is actually an artful composition. The cropping and close view recall the Japanese woodblock prints that were popular when he was a student in Paris. The vertical and horizontal lines of the window and the wall hanging offset the graceful curve of her figure. "A picture is merely an experiment in design," Benson later told Eleanor when he was teaching her to paint. "If the design is pleasing the picture is good, no mat­ter whether composed of objects, still life, figures or birds. Few appreciate that what makes them admire a picture is the design made by the painter."10

The rich color of the wall combined with the warm tones of her complexion and hair create a foil for the brilliant white on white of Eleanor's subtly patterned dress and the delicate fabric on which she sews. The brilliance of the canvas is accented by a few dark notes: the hanging, the landscape glimpsed through the window, and the indigo patterned pillow-which appears to be the same one tucked behind Elisabeth as she reads before the fireplace in Rainy Day.

While Benson's paintings of his daughters are numerous, his images of his wife are few. His etching Candlelight, a depiction of Ellen brushing her hair in front of a farmhouse bureau, is a fine example of the "color" he was able to capture in the etchings and drypoints he began creating at North Haven in 1912 (Fig. 10). Benson's barn studio was the perfect place to experiment with the complexities and challenges of these new mediums. His first exhibition of prints three years later sold out immediately, and museums and galleries clamored to exhibit his etchings. Collec­tors began placing standing orders with Benson for one of every print he produced. This astonish­ing success meant that he was working almost constantly at his press at Wooster Farm, heretofore a place he had always considered a refuge.

Beginning in 1894, Benson and his son George fished the remote salmon rivers of Canada's GaspÄ— Peninsula each August. George had urged his father to take along a set of watercolors so that he could capture the scenes of his friends hunting and fish­ing as well as the birds and fish they sought. But Benson had felt that the medium was too soft and "lady-like," not vigorous enough to portray such scenes.11 In 1921, however, he overcame his reluc­tance, created a few highly successful watercolors, and was instantly delighted by the portability and immediacy of this new medium.

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[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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