Sunlight

Frank Weston Benson (American, 1862-1951)

Currently on View in K208
Image Licensing

  • The figure’s dress provides a blank canvas for Benson’s brushstrokes in dazzling white, pink, and violet, accented by the blue and violet shadows typical of Impressionism.
  • The model is the artist’s daughter Eleanor, who often joined her mother and sisters in posing for Benson’s outdoor works around Wooster Farm, their summer retreat in Maine.
  • Benson was a key figure in Boston’s art scene, both as a highly successful artist and director of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Like colleagues Edmund Tarbell and William Paxton, his purest Impressionist efforts are depictions of women and children in sun-drenched landscapes.

Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

Frank Benson was a key figure in the vital artistic arena of early 20th-century Boston, a member of a school of painters named for their city. He painted an idealized world that was never ugly or harsh, focusing instead on the lifestyle of genteel New Englanders. His outdoor images, especially those of vibrant young women, were painted in the full spectrum of colors, in bright sunshine. The model in Sunlight is the artist's daughter Eleanor, who, like her mother and sisters, often posed for Benson's outdoor works. Enveloped in sunshine, Eleanor's white dress is crisscrossed with the blue shadows typical of orthodox Impressionism. Even her gesture-left hand raised against the glare-refers to the light that is the painting's true subject.

Benson studied at the Boston Museum School and the Académie Julian, eventually embracing many of the techniques and goals of French Impressionism. Benson was accomplished in a variety of media, including watercolor, pastel, aquatint, and engraving. In the 1890s, the artist accepted a commission to work on the decoration of the Library of Congress and completed murals of the four seasons and Three Graces for the project.

[Benson] sets before us visions of the free life of the open air . . . in a landscape drenched in sweet sunlight.
-Critic William Howe Downes, 1911

Curatorial Summary

Frank Weston Benson became one of Boston’s most popular artists and played a leading role in the local Impressionist school. Benson was a member of The Ten, a group that included America’s most important Impressionist painters. Although only some of The Ten painted in the Impressionist style, they all believed in freedom of expression and the need to experiment. Like Benson, most of The Ten were already successful artists, but they broke away from the restrictions of the traditional artist organizations of their day in order to exhibit more freely.

Sunlight shows the artist’s daughter Eleanor looking across Penobscot Bay in Maine, a pose that Benson incorporated in several compositions during the early 1900s, when he fully adopted the Impressionist style. Benson referred to a photograph of Eleanor as a guide for his painting, but he elongated her waistline and straightened her posture to enhance the elegance of her figure. This artistic liberty in his works reflects Benson’s own acceptance of the ideal of timeless beauty, and he painted for a traditional New England society that wanted to see its own values reflected in art.

While Benson used photography to compose his works, he also sketched and painted in the open air to capture the essence of the sparkling light, producing single-figure studies he used in larger compositions. The brilliant color, dazzling sunlight, and rapid brushwork are typical elements of the Impressionist style. Benson often created multiple compositions of a similar theme, keeping some paintings of his family for his personal collection.

References

Bedford, Faith Andrews. Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist. New York: Rizzoli, 1994.

Wilmerding, John, Sheila Dugan, and William H. Gerdts. Frank W. Benson: The Impressionist Years. New York: Spanierman Gallery, 1988.

Purchased from the artist by the John Herron Art Institute, Indianapolis, Indiana,{1} now the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, in 1911 (11.1).

{1} Included in the Sixth Annual Exhibition of Works by American Artists at the John Herron Art Institute, 4 December 1910 -1 January 1911, cat. no. 253, and purchased out of this exhibition. See Art Association of Indianapolis, Indiana, Annual Report, 1911, p. 13.

Object Information

artist
Frank Weston Benson (American, 1862-1951)
creation date
1909
materials
oil on canvas
dimensions
32 x 20 in. (canvas)
37-1/8 x 25-1/2 x 2-5/8 in. (framed)
mark descriptions
Signed and dated in brown oil paint at lower left: F W. Benson 1909
accession number
11.1
credit line
John Herron Fund
copyright
© The Frank W. Benson Trust
collection
American Painting and Sculpture to 1945
colors

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