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FRANK W. BENSON



Following The Light in Black and White

Walk into a fine sporting-art gallery and ask to see any of Frank Benson’s etchings, drypoints, or much rarer lithographs, and you’ll understand immediately why he’s credited as the creator and master of the sporting print.

What you may not know is that Benson was also one of the leading American Impressionists, whose colorful, gorgeously lit portraits of genteel women and charming children bathed in sunlight or cozy firelight made him the medal-earningest artist of his generation. With an output of some 2,000 oils, watercolors, and intaglio prints during his long and happy life (1862–1951), he was also among the wealthiest.

Benson’s success was due not only to his great natural talent but also to his Yankee appetite for work; his physical stamina (he stood 6-feet 3); his love of problem solving, sport, and the extended family he often portrayed. One need only look at his idyllic New England childhood, sailing, skating, fishing, and birdwatching in the waters and salt marshes of Essex County, to grasp the origins of his passion to portray shorebirds, waterfowl, and sportsmen.

Although Benson lived almost his entire life in Salem, Massachusetts, his visual universe also encompassed the primitive farmhouse on Cape Cod’s Nauset Marsh that he and his brothers-in-law bought in 1891 for their fishing and waterfowling, and the rustic farm on North Haven Island in Maine’s Penobscot Bay he added in 1901, where he spent a half-century of summers with his wife, four children, and easel. He also fished salmon for 40 seasons, mostly on the Gaspé Peninsula, and spent a good number of Octobers waterfowling on Ontario’s Long Point.

As a child he had dreamed of becoming an ornithological illustrator à la Audubon, and roamed Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. No wonder his first two oils, painted at age 16, were of a snipe and a rail nailed to a barn door! His obvious talent earned Benson his reluctant father’s permission in 1880 to attend the recently established School of Painting and Drawing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts; eight years later, Benson began his 30-year career teaching there.

In 1883, Benson left New England for Paris with fellow artist, Edmund Tarbell, to study at the Académie Julian with famous figure-painters Jules Lefebvre and William Bouguereau, and historical painter Tony Robert-Fleury.

Like other “followers of light,” Childe Hassam, John Henry Twachtman, and Tarbell , he returned to America an Impressionist: an American Impressionist. A member of the prestigious Society of American Artists since 1888, in 1898 he joined the Ten American Painters (also known as The Ten)—a progressive, breakaway group of esteemed, mostly Boston and New York Impressionist artists.

Benson had already achieved renown and success before tackling his first sporting intaglio at age 50. Although he had had a short fling with etching as a youth, and produced a noteworthy view of Salem harbor as the frontispiece for his art school’s magazine in 1882, he’d never studied the engraving arts. Yet with no seeming intention to market a new “school” of his works, in 1912 he turned to Maxim Lalanne’s book, Treatise on Etching, and launched himself into 30 years of hard work with the drypointist’s burin and the etcher’s needle. Benson was always experimenting with “biting” copper or zinc plates using nitric acid or ferric chloride of varying strengths for varying lengths of time, testing different viscosities of ink and various papers (his favorites were Shogun and Whatman), which he even tried soaking in coffee. He pulled proofs from the heavy, inked rollers of his printing press, and penciled on corrections that he translated onto the plate or stone.

In 1915 he decided to include his first dozen sporting and waterfowl prints in his exhibit with the Guild of Boston Artists. Their success was immediate. From fewer than 10 intaglios a year he made 52, printing 35 to 50 of each. For the next 30 years he could barely keep up with the demand, despite increasing print runs of his drypoints to 150 by steel-facing the plates, preserving the fragile burr that gives drypoint its softer lines and velvety blacks.

At last count Benson is known to have produced 359 etchings and drypoints, and seven lithographs. (See John Ordeman’s Master of the Sporting Print for a complete reference.) Although he opted not to print 86 of them, he’d sold one million dollars worth of prints by 1940!

If one thinks of Edwardian figures bathed in seaside light when picturing Benson’s oils, and of loosely painted Winslow Homer-like fishermen and canoesmen in the watercolors he began in the 1920’s, his intaglios were almost exclusively of waterfowl, shorebirds, and gunners in their natural setting. Waterfowlers, especially, identify with his ducks alighting in chilly winter marshes at dawn, or flying against a cloud-darkening sky, or flashing away from the glint of the shotgun.


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His works count 22 species of ducks and geese, including mallard, black duck, pintail, wigeon, shoveler, wood duck, redhead, canvasback, bufflehead, baldpate, gadwall, teals, mergansers, and scaups, and as many other species including egrets, herons, plover, wild swan, woodcock, grouse, and yellowlegs. Interestingly, although Benson was an ardent angler, you can count his fishing prints on one hand.

Benson shot thousands of ducks over the decades and knew the aerodynamics of his dabblers’ and divers’ characteristic takeoffs and landings as only a sportsman can. He rarely sketched or took photos in the field, although he sometimes made quick watercolors as studies. Instead, he relied on his mind’s eye for accuracy of form and setting for every manner of wildfowl activity. “You should learn absolutely to see the thing truly as it exists, and then use that knowledge as you like . . . but beneath everything should be a solid foundation of reality,” Benson told his daughter, Eleanor, while critiquing her artwork. Lucky for us, she wrote it all down. “All that I have, I got from studying nature,” he said, “not by studying how other people do it.”

Benson was an artist, not an illustrator, of birdlife. He used his imagination, coupling it with personal experience and solid principals of composition—what he called “design”—to convey his birds and sportsmen with such great appeal. He believed composition, above all, led to a successful work. Pared down to the bare essentials, with open space playing a vital role, his works are often asymmetrical yet exquisitely balanced; remove any bird and the work is “off.” “Design makes the picture,” he said. “A picture is good or bad only as its composition is good or bad.”

He believed that shapes, not specific objects, are essential to the design, and that each shape should carry its tonal weight within it. “Don’t paint things. Don’t paint anything but the effect of light . . . Don’t draw lines around things—make them by rendering the light and shadow,” he counseled. Even with the white-gray-black palette of intaglio printing: “Get the force of the light!”

Interestingly, this famous plein-air Impressionist didn’t think that colors, in and of themselves, are essential: “Values are what you must get right.” Color for Benson didn’t mean the green of leaves but the effect of light on an object, and of one color on another.

Benson paid careful attention to the fore-, mid- and background, choosing where to establish his horizons, perfecting the scale, overlapping images to create three-dimensional space. Even tiny 1-5/8 by 5-inch etchings, like Early Gunners, offer imposing men in vast marshland vistas. He achieved movement with an unspoken narrative. A group of tranquil redheads need only turn their heads in the same direction to create a story about to unfold. Presenting a flock of ducks at different angles at various stages of a water landing, like a stop-action photo, produces the rhythm and motion of his sporting art.

Benson had a confident and strong hand that allowed him to use the expressive energy of different kinds of lines—delicate or powerful, repeated or hatched—to convey sun-flushed dawns and fast-fading daylight. “The needle line by a very little must say a great deal,” wrote Lalanne.

All these elements come together in a Benson work to establish its mood, which is what captures the viewer’s heart, because the tone of a fleeting, illuminated moment is ultimately more expressive than dreary attention to details.

Like the New Englander he was, Benson believed that good art was “a product of hard work and intense mental effort . . . only those can succeed who have the capacity for work and the necessary intelligence.” Although he knew the blues of the artist, his was a long, productive, and satisfying life: “I have been happy because my hobby and my work are one and the same, and if you can arrange the same thing in your life, you will be equally happy.”

Spotting an oil painting of a horse by drypoint dog artist Marguerite Kirmse in a window in Philadelphia’s sumptuous Restaurant Row, Brooke entered the venerable Neuman Galleries and beheld her first Benson sporting print. It was love at first sight.

 

 

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