Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951) is best known for picturesque portraits of his family on the shores of North Haven, Maine. With his signature light brushwork, the American Impressionist effortlessly captured the bliss of a summer afternoon and chronicled his deep appreciation for nature. Much of Benson’s angelic scenes catalog his family’s time on the island and depict his daughters—Eleanor, Elisabeth, and Sylvia—in flowing white dresses. Benson’s paintings offer a glimpse at his family’s afternoons spent picnicking, exploring the island, and relaxing in front of Wooster Farm, their summer home.
A native of Salem, Massachusetts, Benson spent much of his career teaching art across New England, sharing his talent with schools like the Museum School in Boston and leading outdoor art classes in Newcastle, New Hampshire. Around the turn of the century, Benson traveled across Europe, spending time at an artists’ colony in France and working alongside painters like Willard Metcalf and Edward Simmons. Upon returning home, Benson grew tired of teaching summer classes and began looking for a second home where his family might escape the heat of the city in July and August.
North Haven’s idyllic landscape and distant Camden Hills proved to be just the inspiration Benson was looking for. A critic in St. Nicholas Magazine wrote, “Hidden somewhere about Mr. Benson’s studio, I am convinced there is a little jar marked ‘Sunshine’ into which he dips his brush when he paints his pictures of the summer. It is impossible to believe that mere paint, however cleverly laid on, can glow and shimmer and sparkle as does that golden light on his canvas.”
After renting the farmhouse for a few seasons, Benson and his wife, Ellen, purchased Wooster Farm in 1906. At the time, the farmhouse—where Benson would spend years dreaming and drawing inspiration for his work and eventually would paint a series of murals—was the only structure on the sprawling property. Later, the artist repurposed the old cattle barn for his studio, adding a large window so he could look out on Penobscot Bay while he worked. The south-facing wall remains covered in dried paint, a vibrant legacy of Benson’s many hours spent mixing colors and cleaning off his brushes.
In the latter part of his career, Benson experimented with different mediums, bringing his signature style to the world of etchings, lithographs, and watercolors, the latter of which became some of his most popular works. Benson enjoyed the novelty of a new medium, adopting new techniques despite demand and praise for his early work. His lyrical strokes captured scenes from fishing trips with his son, George; afternoons in the forest; mornings in Ellen’s garden; and, of course, days spent on North Haven. Perhaps as a result of his daughters and long-time models growing up and moving away, Benson looked for new subjects and began etching. The artist installed a printing press in the studio at Wooster Farm and worked on copper plates, using a set of dental tools from the family dentist to experiment with line and shadow. Much of his work featured wildfowl, and Benson specifically played with images of wild geese in flight—inspired by hunting trips to New York and Canada and time spent in the marshes of Cape Cod.
Benson received numerous prizes for his work including the Hallgarten Prize at the National Academy of Design in 1889 and a Columbian Exposition Medal in Chicago in 1893. The artist was a founding member of the Guild of Boston Artists in 1914. His work is featured on ceilings and walls in the Library of Congress and can be found in the collections of The National Gallery of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and The Met, among others.