Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist

by Faith Andrews Bedford. Rizzoli, 240 pages, $50.00.
In advising his daughter Eleanor about her work, the by then highly successful painter Benson (1862-1951) said, “Don’t paint anything but the effect of light. Don’t paint things.” Benson did not consider himself an Impressionist, but he did paint light—light on beaches, on waves, through woods, through mists, over snow. The inhabitants of his light-drenched milieus are pretty children, beautiful young women, sportsmen, guides, birds, and fish—all healthy, well dressed, and, with the exception of shot birds and speared fish, happy. Admirers of the later Ashcan School might accuse Benson of sentimental idealization, but they would be wrong. The paintings are not sentimental (those young ladies have a coiled-spring vitality, and the sportsmen work hard) and are only mildly idealized. Benson painted the best of the kind of life his well-heeled patrons proposed to lead. Ms. Bedford, the artist’s great-granddaughter, writes well of his work as teacher, painter, etcher, and watercolorist, and sums up his career neatly. “Each time he moved in a new direction with his art, success followed him, creating a demand for his work” which “continued until the day he died and beyond.” The book’s numerous illustrations are likely to extend that demand—probably with no hope, for nobody who has a Benson is likely to part with it.