Frank W. Benson, N.A.
My recollections of Frank Benson as a teacher remain vivid although I painted under his supervision for barely three months. The announcement of his impending retirement at the close of the current Museum School year in 1913 came during my second winter of drawing from life in Philip Hale’s class. I promptly begged permission to spend the spring term working in the last "portrait class” Benson would ever criticize so that I might benefit from at least a sample of his teaching method. It turned out to be a privilege for which I have never ceased to be grateful.
Mr. Benson cut a very imposing figure indeed. Standing something over six feet, with greying hair and mustache, he was always impeccably clad. Years later I was told that when he opened his first exhibition in Boston after returning from Paris the promising newcomer on the art scene was approached by a visitor of about his own age. Diffidently the stranger expressed great admiration for the pictures on display and for one canvas in particular which at the time he could not afford to buy. He went on to say that he was about to open a tailoring establishment in the city and offered to clothe the artist for the remainder of his life, charging him only the cost of the materials used, if in exchange he were permitted to take the coveted painting. The proposition was a gamble for both participants but Benson took his chance. The youthful entrepreneur’s name was F.L. Dunne whose firm for over half a century was regarded as the finest, and certainly the most expensive, men's
tailor in New England. Frank Benson lived to be eighty-nine but I daresay that the astute Mr. Dunne felt that the trade attracted by his handsome and celebrated customer left his establishment on the profitable end of the bargain he had made.
This commanding personage delivered his class criticisms in measured tones sufficiently loud to be distinctly heard by the entire roomful of students, which that year consisted of perhaps fifteen young people. By and large he limited his instruction to expatiating on two fundamental principles of impressionist rendering. I will state his thesis briefly, its technical character notwithstanding, for the light it throws on the aims of impressionist painting whose pursuit united all the artists presented in this volume.
Summarily stated, the first of his two working principles underscored the desirability of maintaining from the very start of a painting the relative degrees of definition which the various shapes comprised in a chosen field of vision, present to eyes which have been focussed so as to embrace the entire area to be depicted in a single glance. For it is this over-all aspect which the impressionist is bent on rendering since it alone conveys the "sense of beauty and mystery which enchants us when we look at nature,” to use an unforgettable phrase of Frank Benson's. To transcribe this “impression instantanée,” as Claude Monet called it, constitutes the gist of Impressionism. And Benson's second principle came as a corollary to the first. When the colors in the given prospect are observed simultaneously in a mutual relationship, instead of being examined separately, they appear entirely transformed. This esthetically important optical phenomenon eludes the beginner’s eye even more stubbornly than its above mentioned fellow partner. Yet one need only juxtapose a landscape by any member of the Hudson River School, for instance, with one by Claude Monet, Sisley or Benson to measure the gap separating the two perceptions. The comprehensive, broadly focussed look registers a superior visual truth whose splendor has overwhelmed most of us from time to time unawares as we gazed at nature in certain exceptionally receptive moods. The impressionist painter’s task is to carefully analyze this truth and transpose it permanently to canvas.
In his plein air paintings Frank Benson often carried out this intent with startling success. Painting under the open sky his fine feeling for color relations prevailed triumphantly whereas environmental conditions veiled the shapes in atmosphere and luminosity. He was never a strong draftsman and the insecurity of his forms militates against the effectiveness of his portraits and of his interiors when they include figures. But he has left us a number of magnificent still lifes which are given an impressively decorative cast by their color schemes, derived from assemblages of handsome objects broadly indicated with a full brush and a touch uniquely Benson’s own. And when on occasion he succeeded in bringing the draftsmanship of a portrait up to the level of its handsomely observed color, perhaps because the sitter was a relative or a close friend prepared to pose patiently, the result is enchanting.
But around 1919 he abandoned portrait painting and devoted the remainder of his long career to depicting outdoor scenes, sometimes peopled with figures engaged in various appropriate activities but more often enlivened by the waterfowl in which he delighted. He carried out these pictures in various media: oil, water color, sepia wash, etching and dry point, all of which found a ready market throughout the affluent twenties. For several successive years of that decade Frank Benson reported an income in six figures from picture sales. If one considers the purchasing power of the American dollar at that time and the comparatively low income tax then levied his intake must compare favorably with the earnings of the most remunerated painters of any epoch.
Frank Benson's artistic education closely paralleled his friend Tarbell’s. The two boys entered Boston's "Art Museum School of Drawing and Painting" on the same day in the fall of 1880. Both went to Paris in 1882 where they attended the atelier of Lefebvre and Boulanger and, in due course, also benefited from William Dannat’s criticism. Benson summered at picturesque Concarneau in 1884 but his European sojourn was relatively brief for he returned to Salem in 1885. We then hear of him teaching at the Portland Society of Art in 1886. From remarks he dropped in my presence I inferred that he found Europe unrewarding and never returned. In the fall of 1889 he rejoined his friend Tarbell in Boston where the two rising luminaries of the art world were appointed to Otto Grundmann’s teaching staff at the Museum School. After the latter’s death during the following summer, his one time pupils took charge of the painting department and, with Tarbell at the helm, conducted it with conspicuous success until 1913. Philip Hale joined them in 1893 and Paxton rounded out the illustrious quartet in the fall of 1906.
The resignation of this group, exceptionally qualified by the uniformity of their outlook to teach the art of painting concertedly, was rendered inevitable in 1912 by a decision of the School’s governing board to appoint a director empowered to supervise all its scholastic activities. Hitherto the department of drawing and painting had functioned as an independent entity over which these four outstanding painter-instructors exercised complete control. They had accepted their appointments with the specified understanding that their independence would not be infringed upon. And it was precisely their freedom of action which enabled these four like-minded painters to dispense their collective instruction effectively. The intrusive control of a non-painter in this field exemplified the tendency to institutionalize art teaching which was eroding its effectiveness everywhere at that time. The dissolution of that superior team initiated the rapid decline of Boston as a center of art instruction. The damage was accelerated by dissension among the painters themselves which left lasting scars. Hale elected to remain at the school because he could not afford to sacrifice his salary. Paxton resigned in a manner which permanently alienated his two older colleagues. The monolithic front presented by the Boston Painters was irremediably destroyed. But the final steps which were to obliterate the long and immensely generative teaching methods of which the elder Bostonians had been the last efficacious conservators were not taken until 1930. Ironically, that suicidal change of course was instituted by William James, an alumnus and ex-teacher of the Museum School who had been made chairman of the governing board in that year.