Monday, April 11, 2011

Frank Benson Makes an Impression

Frank W. Benson (1862-1951) . Portrait of My Daughters, 1907

Frank Benson's Good Impression
"Mr. Benson cut a very imposing figure indeed. Standing something over six feet, with greying hair and mustache, he was always impeccably clad. After returning from his studies in Paris [1889], the promising newcomer on the Boston 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 youthful entrepreneur's name was F. L. Dunne whose firm for over half a century was regarded as the finest - certainly the most expensive - men's tailor in New. England. Frank Benson lived to be eighty-nine, but 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."

Frank Benson was one of the Boston Painters, a celebrated group of artists in the early 1900s. Lilian and Philip Hale, Dennis Bunker, Edmund Tarbell, Joseph DeCamp, Frederic Vinton, and William Paxton were also members of this celebrated group who were cheered on by Isabella Stewart Gardner. After some unfortunate circumstances, however, they found themselves deliberately ignored and even buried by the art scene of the 1930s. The first I heard of them was through a couple of friends who trained under men who were trained by this group of artists.

The Reader, 1910

Two Impressing Impressionistic Principles
The author of The Boston Painters, RH Ives Gammell, took a sabbatical from his studies with Philip Hale "to take the last portrait class Benson would ever criticize so that he might benefit from at least a sample of his teaching method. He said that it was a privilege for which he never ceased to be grateful." Here is a description of the class, and two of Benson's most important lessons:

"This commanding personage delivered his class criticisms in measured tones sufficiently loud to be distinctly heard by the entire roomful of students - perhaps fifteen young people. By and large he limited his instruction to expatiating on two fundamental principles of impressionist painting.

The First Principle: 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 focused so as to embrace the entire area to be depicted in a single glance. For it is this overall 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 instantanee,' as Claude Monet called it, constitutes the gist of Impressionism.

The Second Principle: 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.

The comprehensive, broadly focused 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."*

Very simply put - and I am completely open to correction, he instructed the artist to look at his subject as a whole, not as individual parts; to ask himself, "What hits me when I initially look at this?" and "How do each of the colors relate to each other?" and then create that same impression in the painting...that's all!

*from The Boston Painters by RH Ives Gammell, 1986 . edited by Elizabeth Ives Hunter

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