Frank Weston Benson painted everything from duck stamps to Library of Congress murals, but he is most beloved for his sunny outdoor paintings of New Englanders at leisure.
“I follow the light, where it comes from, where it goes,” he once said.
Frank Weston Benson
He was born to an old and privileged Salem, Mass., family on March 24, 1862. As a boy, his father gave him a shotgun and taught him how to hunt shore birds. Benson wrote to his friend of his childhood adventures,
We used to spend our Saturdays chasing coot and old squaws in Salem Harbor. Then, after working hard all day to get one bird, in we would assemble at Sam Shrum’s or mine and chew the rag until we were so sleepy we could not hold up our heads. What a minute account each had to give of each movement of every bird seen and every shot missed. It was almost criminal to miss an easy shot in those days, so many excuses had to be invented. One word would have served for all in my case if it had been invented then, I was generally ‘rattled,’ I think, when you and I went ducking.
On his 21st birthday, his parents gave him $2,000 to travel to Europe. He studied old masters, especially the 17th century masters Johannes Vermeer and Diego Velázquez. He was also influenced by the French Impressionist Claude Monet.
By 1888 he was an established artist and married the daughter of a family friend, Ellen Perry Peirson. They had four children: Eleanor, George, Elisabeth, and Sylvia. Benson established studios in Salem and Boston, but used his family as subjects during their summer sojourns in Dublin, N.H., New Castle, N.H., and North Haven Island in Penobscot Bay.
His painting of the sisters, his two daughters Eleanor and Elisabeth, won him many medals throughout the United States and Paris and solidified his reputation. By 1914, the Boston Transcript called him America’s most medaled painter.
During that phase of his career, he also painted allegorical murals for the Library of Congress.
Eventually his paintings were criticized as too pretty, and he returned to his first love, waterfowl. He mastered etchings of wildlife prints and was persuaded by a friend to design the second Federal Duck Stamp.
Frank Weston Benson died on Nov. 15, 1951. Of his art, critic William H. Gerdts wrote,
Frank Benson painted some of the most beautiful pictures ever executed by an American artist. They are images alive with reflections of youth and optimism, projecting a way of life at once innocent and idealized and yet resonant with a sense of certain, selective realities of contemporary times.
This story updated in 2022.