Sometimes it takes me years to really appreciate an artist. I am sure a part of this is that we all evolve as artists. The things that we are attempting change in our own work become more important in the work of others or we start seeing things in a new way because we might have a new goal or emphasis in our work. I remember seeing some bad reproductions of Frank Weston Benson’s work a long time ago and I wasn’t impressed. I didn’t like his looseness or his sometimes less than diligent regard for anatomical proportion. That changed with a recent trip to the Smithsonian. I stood in front of Benson’s painting Summer, a portrait of his wife as the embodiment of the season, and took in the pure beauty of it.
One of the things that I love about Benson’s work now, IS the looseness and stylization. I admire how he has chosen to simplify his rendering, but the surface of his work is far from simple. I also love how he stylized the value relationships. Look at the eye that is in the light side below and note how high key he has kept it. That splash of intense red around the eye, in the nostril and mouth breath vitality into the flesh. I love the sublte cool mints and greens in the skin where he is greying the form to turn it or cooling flesh to give temperature contrast and variety.
The painting below is another beautiful example of his controlled and stylized use of values. That hand holding the flower is on par with the best of Sargent’s work in my opinion. I love the face too. It’s so beautiful. The blush of pink in the cheek, more so on the side facing the viewer is subtle but essential when paired with the grey skin around it.
Here are some more of his works to take in. Look how much he was able to do with suggestion. I love how he welded all the shadow shapes together in the painting below. Squint at the painting and note the large shapes that continue through the image from the foreground to the middle ground.
Benson also loved depicting birds and did so in oils, watercolor and etchings, all with great skill:
He won just about every art award there was to win, according to Faith Andrews Bedford in her book on Benson titled Impressionist Summers” Frank W. Benson’s North Haven. I haven’t been able to find many good reproductions of his work out there on the web, so I was delighted to find Bedford’s wonderful book on Amazon.
A quote that stood out to me was this one: “People in general have sense of beauty and know when things are right. And design is the only thing that matters.” Interesting to consider. What do you think, is design the only thing that matters? My opinion is that poor design can cloud the best of skills. Great design can elevate the mediocre technique.
When you pair great technical skill and compelling design, you get magic.