The cover. Calm morning.

Abstract

REAL LIFE FOR AMERICAN ARTIST FRANK WESTON Benson (1862-1951) included a wife, children, an inherited house, a vacation home, and a six-figure income for many of his productive years. Benson ( JAMA cover, June 22, 1979) painted from the time he was 12 years old until a few years before he died. The Salem, Massachusetts, native did not stray far from his hometown after his almost de rigueur, for the era, educational interval in Paris where he, like his companion Edmund Tarbell and many other artistic hopefuls, attended the Académie Julian. On his return from Europe, the student became a teacher: Benson joined the faculty of the Museum School in Boston in 1889 and remained associated with the school for more than 40 years. Benson’s Boston connections, although socially and economically important, could not drag him away from his Salem roots. Even a teaching position at an art school in Maine was short-lived when Benson returned to Massachusetts and married Ellen (Ellie) Perry Peirson. They soon had 3 children; their fourth child, Sylvia, also known as Kitten or Kit, arrived in their family several years later. Daughters Eleanor and Elisabeth (Betty) and son George, and later Sylvia, posed for their father for numerous paintings; he paid them 15 cents an hour to do so. Calm Morning (cover) features George, standing, and Eleanor and Elisabeth sitting in the tiny punt, which bobs on a peaceful waterway. This work was painted at the family vacation home, Wooster Farm, in North Haven Island, Maine. Benson later described it as “my best out of door work.” Tones of blue and white, accented by pink in Elisabeth’s outfit: the colors in Calm Morning evoke a summer day at the shore, spent doing absolutely nothing. Beautiful brushwork defines the smooth sea surface. Light emanates from the children’s boat and from Eleanor’s dress, allowing the viewer, and perhaps also the artist, to appreciate the precious sunshine. The composition of the 3 youngsters calls to mind the tripartite position of the sails in the boats on the horizon. George mirrors a mast, and the white-gowned Eleanor resembles a mainsail. Elisabeth, leaning over to check her fishing line, displays a curved chest that mimics the jaunty jibs, angled perfectly, in order to catch what little breeze blew over Benson’s placid harbor. Sylvia, 6 years old at the time, does not appear in this painting. Sylvia became Benson’s manager and secretary when she was about 20 years old and remained as such for the rest of his life; the devoted daughter did not marry until after both her parents were dead. The painting of children idling their summer away on a boat in a glassy bay represents the life of relative privilege that Benson and his family enjoyed. Benson was a founding member of the Ten American Painters, who first exhibited their work in 1898. Resigning from the Society of American Artists—which itself was earlier a renegade group from the National Academy of Design— these artists wanted a new way to display their work, instead of the usual crowded shows. However, they did not have in mind a full rebellion against the Establishment, like the French Impressionists in their Salon des Refusés. Although several of the other members of the Ten (the nickname bestowed on the group by the press), along with Benson, painted in an Impressionist manner, the group was not exclusively Impressionist nor did its members completely comprise the American Impressionist movement. Despite his long-standing membership in the Ten, Benson received Academician status from the National Academy of Design in 1905. The accomplished oil and watercolor painter later ventured into etching and drypoint art. His wildlife studies, especially, continued his fame and salability. Numerous works exist of Benson’s interpretations from nature: his birds include egrets, herons, canvasback and mallard ducks, grouse, and geese. Landscapes and sea scenes reveal his fascination with, and respect for, nature and its gifts. The placidity and peace of his naturalistic artworks must have arisen from the satisfaction of a life well lived and from the soul of a man well loved. The 89-year-old Benson died in 1951, at home and surrounded by his family, following a hip fracture. Benson’s bountiful, beautiful bay scene in Calm Morning may have reflected his own view of life experienced in Massachusetts and Maine, but to many who lived contemporaneously, the painting represents an ideal: an idyllic and nearly unimaginable existence.

DOI: 10.1001/jama.2009.464

Cite this paper

@article{Torpy2009TheCC, title={The cover. Calm morning.}, author={Janet M. Torpy}, journal={JAMA}, year={2009}, volume={301 20}, pages={2073} }