Frank Weston Benson
Frank Weston Benson
Oil on canvas
91.8 x 113 cm (36 1/8 x 44 1/2 inches)
Bequest of Isaac C. Bates 13.912
(October 11, 2013 – February 9, 2014)
Frank Benson taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and gave occasional studio critiques at RISD. That work and income from private commissions permitted him to acquire vacation property on North Haven Island, Maine, where he photographed and made sketches of his daughters and their friends in preparation for this painting of a perfect summer day. Benson used these studies to capture poses, then referenced and combined them as he created the finished work in his studio. His models present an optimistic view of contemporary young womanhood—relaxed, confident, and looking to the future.
Benson’s Summer is incomplete without its frame, impeccably crafted by the Boston firm Foster Brothers to complement the painting. I am attracted to this frame for its brilliant luminosity. To achieve such a dazzling surface, tissue-thin sheets of gold leaf were carefully laid over wood that had been carved, sanded, sealed with rabbit-skin glue, and painted with gesso and reddish clay before it was sized with adhesive. Even today this surface glows, as gold leaf retains its luster indefinitely. Festooned with a chainwork of fruit, foliage, and flowers, the frame also redoubles the painting’s inherent theme of fertility.
Isabella McCormick, RISD (Painting) / Brown BA student, 2015(April 6, 2007 – January 6, 2008)
Edited ByWoolsey, Ann, ed.
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2008
TypeMonographs and CollectionsSelection VIIAmerican Painting from the Museum's Collection, c.1800-1930
Contributions byMandel, Patrica C.F.
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1977
TypeMonographs and CollectionsA Handbook of the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design
Edited ByWoodward, Carla M., and Franklin W. Robinson, eds.
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1988
TypeMonographs and Collections
Bouruignon, Katherine M. “American Impressionism: a New Vision 1880-1900”. Giverny: Musee des impressionnisms Giverny, 2014.
Grzyb, Frank L and Russell J. Desimone. “Remarkable Women of Rhode Island”. Charleston: The History Press, 2014.
About the work
Frank Benson’s depiction of a warm summer day on the coast of Maine is overtly and symbolically linked to the beauty of the women relaxing on the seaside cliffs. The landscape and figures are connected through Benson’s palette and his handling of paint so that they almost become one. Note, for instance, that the women’s dresses are composed of the same whites, blues, and pinks in the sky, water, and land.
In 1900, almost 20% of women were in the workforce, although paintings of early 20th-century women engaged in work outside the home are very rare. At the turn of the century, artistic depictions of women were most often limited to their role as aesthetic objects in an environment of wealth and leisure; their beauty, like that of nature, was considered a source of artistic inspiration. The casual poses of the women in Benson’s painting suggest that they are content; however, one woman gazes out over the ocean, perhaps indicating a desire to see beyond the confines of her world.
What is the mood of this painting? How does Benson’s choice of color and painting style contribute to the mood? What other elements affect the mood?
Describe the young women’s appearance. Based on your observations, what can you tell about their lives? How do you think they spent their time?
Examine the gaze and posture of the woman who is standing. What do you think she’s looking at? How might you interpret her position in light of your knowledge of women’s lives at the turn of the 20th century?
In 1899, American author Kate Chopin wrote this in The Awakening about her protagonist Edna Pontellier:
Even as a child she had lived her own small life all within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life—that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.*
Consider how this quote relates to the women in this painting and to women’s lives more broadly. Drawing on their detailed observations of the figures and setting of this painting, have your students write a dialogue for these young women spending an afternoon by the sea, based on what they know about the lives of women at this time.
To explore ways women are presented and perceived in the 21st century, have students find and analyze an image of a group of women from a current magazine, TV show, or movie. Working in groups, they should discuss their analyses to each other, noting any commonalities in the way women are portrayed now with how they are portrayed in Benson’s painting.
“Exploration and Retrenchment: The Arts in Unsettling Times, 1890–1900” (ch. 11), in American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008.