FRANK WESTON BENSON
Red and Gold, 1915
Oil on canvas, 51 X 59" (78.74 x 99.06 cm.)
Signed, lower left
Museum purchase, 919-0-102
Through his paintings, teaching, and involvement in professional artists' organizations, Frank Weston Benson was one of the leaders in the development of an American Impressionist style. In the 1940s, late in his life, he would look back on a long and varied career that included landscapes, still lifes, sporting subjects, and birds, painted in oil and watercolor and etched on copper plates. But Benson is best-remembered for his figurative paintings, most of which he had completed by 1920. His images of young ladies in white dresses standing contemplatively on windswept hillsides gave ineradicable definition to one aspect of American Impressionism. And, with the closely-related works of his friend, Edmund C. Tarbell, his portrayals of the same women reading or sewing in elegantly appointed interiors shaped the central motif of what came to be identified as a distinctively Bostonian tradition.
Born in Salem, Massachusetts, to a prosperous mercantile family, Benson overcame his father's early skepticism about his choice of an artistic career to study, first, at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and then at the Acad6mie Julian in Paris, which for many young American artists of the era had become a mandatory stop on the road to artistic respectability. After returning to New England in 1885, over the next four years Benson opened a Boston studio which he shared with Tarbell, began teaching at the Museum School, and was elected to membership in the Society of American Artists, the progressive alternative to the National Academy of Design. In 1898, Benson further distanced himself from the academic establishment by helping found the( Ten American Artists, an organization dedicated to the exhibition and promotion of Impressionism.
From its beginnings in the work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Mary Cassatt, American Impressionism had explored a variety of themes and styles, from the broken brushwork and chromatic analyses of light pioneered by Claude Monet to the bravura strokes and psychological penetrations of John Singer Sargent. Benson's style, which had matured by 1898, combined the brushwork and color of Monet-a Boston favorite since the early 1890s-with his own characteristically American subjects.
Like most American Impressionists, Benson was conservative in his approach; his figures solidly occupy spaces and, though his surfaces sparkle with the effects of reflected light, they never dissolve into a coloristic haze. He deliberately chose subjects that, in one critic's words, celebrated a civilized "ideal of grace, of dignity, of elegance" ; his subjects also proclaim the defining traits of the modern American woman as he understood her: glowing with health, virtuously domestic without being stuffy, wrapped in a mantle of material privilege yet independent and inquisitive, direct in the expression of opinions yet self- controlled.
The young lady in Red and Gold exemplifies the type. In lesser hands, she might have ended up as but one more decoration in a highly decorative composition the tone of which is instantly proclaimed by the bold black and gold Japanese screen that forms the backdrop. Her white dress and bright red shawl thus immediately gain our attention, from which we then turn to the details: the black fan that she holds so elegantly above her head, its tassel falling alongside the cream-white flesh of her arm; the gold necklace laid out across the tablecloth, one end of which she casually grasps with her left hand. It is a rich tapestry of possessions, yet when we look into her classically pretty face, with its bright red lips, raven black hair and ruddy cheeks, she looks right back at us. Her frank yet somewhat wistful gaze speaks of a complex world of feelings which we are not asked so much to share as to appreciate.
BRUCE W. CHAMBERS