A Rainy Day: Frank W. Benson's Maine Interiors
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
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
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 Gaspė 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.
When he returned to North Haven, he realized watercolor was perfect for portraying the local landscape and the color complexities of Ellen's gardens and flower arrangements. Ellen would frequently place a new arrangement on the dining room table only to find that her husband had whisked it off to his studio a few moments later.12 Nasturtiums in a Vase is just such a work (Fig. 12). The informal arrangement of colorful flowers repeats the blossoms on the pottery vase; the vigorous brushstrokes of the background keep the work lively and vibrant.
Benson's watercolors were as successful as his etchings. Over the next thirty years he painted nearly six hundred, mostly images of wildfowl and landscapes. He could barely keep up with the demand, complaining that people bought them before they were even dry. Tellingly, he kept Nasturtiums in a Vase for himself.
North Haven was a place for renewal, inspiration, and experimentation but, most of all, it was home. The interior works Benson created there may well have been a way for him to hold a bit of Wooster Farm close long after he had left North Haven's rocky shores and returned to life in the city.
Impressionist Summers: Frank W. Benson's North Haven, comprising some seventy paintings, is on view at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, until October 21.