Today marks the birthday of Salem’s most renowned artist, Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951). Benson is perhaps best known as an American Impressionist, whose plein-air paintings captured New England summer and family life around the turn of the last century, but he worked sucessfully in several mediums over his long career. Benson loved painting children, usually his daughters, out in the sun and by the sea, and these are the paintings that remain his most popular and representative. Below is Summer, 1909, the image most associated with the Peabody Essex Museum’s recent exhibition Painting Summer in New England, along with Children in the Woods and Two Little Girls, which recently sold at auction for nearly 2.1 million dollars.
Benson was born in a house on Salem Common and lived in Salem his entire life, the last twenty-five years in an imposing Greek Revival house on Chestnut Street. With his lifelong friend and fellow artist Phillip Little, he also maintained a studio on the street. He spent his summers in New Hampshire and Maine, but always returned to Salem. Many of his paintings with interior settings, including The Black Hat below, feature architectural and material details of Salem houses and the products of the China trade.
Benson’s artistic career actually began with an etching of Salem Harbor, made while he was a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and he would return to that medium later in life after gaining fame as one of “The Ten” American Impressionists who exhibited their works together from 1898-1918. From about 1920 on until the end of his life, Benson specialized in nature and sporting scenes, rendered as etchings, drawings, and watercolors. His two most important public commissions, completed at either ends of his long career, also represent his versatility: the “Seasons” murals at the Library of Congress (with a close-up on “Spring”) and the 1935-36 Federal Duck Stamp.