Impressionism/Ashcan

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Frank W. Benson
Lady in White (Helen Coffin Weld), 1897
Oil on canvas
40 x 32 inches

Signed and dated at lower right: Frank W. Benson 1897

PROVENANCE
Aaron Davis Weld, father of the sitter, by commission, in 1897; by bequest to
Anne Coffin Weld, his widow, in 1907; by bequest to
Bernard Coffin Weld, her son, in 1913; by bequest to
George Stephenson Weld, his son, in 1941; by bequest to
Rosamond B. Weld, his widow, in 1974; by bequest to
Hope Weld Adamson and Sharon Davis Weld, her daughters, in 1990; to
[Diane Jensen Fine Art, Brookline, Massachusetts]; to
Private collection, Connecticut, until the present

A native of Salem, Massachusetts, Frank Benson was a key American Impressionist, winning wide popularity for style with his themes of sharply dressed women and outdoorsman leisure. Benson’s gifts of color and draftsmanship were evident at a young age, but his early and lasting commercial success was as much a product of Benson’s tireless dedication to his work. He left for Paris in 1883, studying at the Académie Julian. There he polished his style and was certainly exposed to French Impressionism, but his first steps towards incorporating the still-stigmatized techniques of Impressionism were halting and tentative. Some of his early successes back in the United States were described as Impressionist because of his focus on light and color, but it was not until the 1890s that he fully bloomed in that style. A member of the National Academy and the Society of American Artists, Benson joined with a number of artists (mainly from the Boston area) to break from the conservative ways of the Academy, in a group that was swiftly dubbed The Ten. While Benson himself was not prone to radical schisms, the much publicized break certainly solidified Benson’s relations with others of the group, including Edmund Tarbell, William Merritt Chase, and John Henry Twachtman. Whereas other members of the group had varying degrees of success, Benson enjoyed popularity and patronage, winning awards and critical acclaim throughout his career. His style was molded partly by his peers, with whom he often went hunting and fishing, but in critical acclaim he largely surpassed them.

The present work is exemplary of Benson’s sensitive portraits, lightly idealizing the sitter in front of an idyllic landscape backdrop. The painting was commissioned by Aaron Davis Weld to remember his recently deceased daughter. The treatment of the subject is not dissimilar to Benson’s painting of his future wife, Portrait in White, a picture that helped make the painter’s reputation. The sitter is treated with a solemnity appropriate to the memorial theme, but also features Benson’s characteristic attention to the semi-transparent layers of fabric. The artist completed as few as two nudes and perhaps only one classical theme in his otherwise prolific career. His attentions were squarely trained on the present rather than the ideal, and to a large degree his embrace of Impressionism was an attempt to make permanence of the fleeting, whether it be a blushing young woman or a duck in flight – perhaps one of the reasons Benson was approached for this sensitive commission.

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