ROCKLAND – Frank W. Benson walked into the sun when he arrived in Maine.
Benson, whose sun-drenched oils and watercolors form the backbone of a major new exhibition at the Farnsworth Art Museum, came to North Haven island for the first time in 1900. The next year, he and his family rented a farm on the island off the coast of Rockland and began an association with North Haven that lasted 40 years.
“From the moment we saw it, North Haven felt like home,” he once said.
Benson had a successful career in Boston, and ventured north in the summer with his family in search of solitude. He found it in a 1700s farm house on North Haven, overlooking meadows and water.
Wooster Farm was, and still is, pristine and idyllic — a postcard-perfect vision of a coastal Maine property in the summertime. Within a few years, Benson and his wife bought the farmhouse and 25 acres.
The Farnsworth show, “Impressionist Summers: Frank W. Benson’s North Haven,” demonstrates how Benson’s art changed with his life on North Haven. It includes about 70 works, including oils and watercolors, as well as drypoints, etchings and lithographs.
“It’s like walking into a gallery full of sunlight,” said guest curator Faith Andrews Bedford. “It includes exquisite renditions of mostly his daughters in plein-air settings on the lawn in front of his house. There are many paintings of his kids on windswept hills, girls in white dresses and his son, occasionally, who was sort of wiggly and used in only a few paintings.”
The North Haven farm that Benson purchased spanned what is known as Crabtree Point. There were lots of gardens and orchards. The Bensons were mostly self sufficient during their North Haven summers. They raised what they ate, including vegetables and fruit.
He painted in the mornings when the sunlight was favorable, and fished in the afternoon.
When not fishing, he and his family and friends filled their afternoons with games of baseball and other outside activities. On rainy days, he painted indoors, but the vast majority of the work in this show consists of blazing-hot outdoor scenes.
They were carefree summers, by all accounts. He wrote, “I have been happy because my hobby and my work are one and the same.”
The Benson property was bounded on one side by the Fox Islands Thoroughfare, which separates North Haven from Vinalhaven. When he turned and looked the other way, Benson had an expansive view of the Camden Hills in the distance.
North Haven was not an artist colony in the sense that Ogunquit was. But it was a magnet for artists. Benson and his wife, Ellen, enjoyed the friendship of several islanders, on both North Haven and Vinalhaven, who happened to be artists. The island community fueled Benson’s sense of artistic discovery, which flourished during his North Haven summers.
He came to Maine with fame. He taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston beginning in 1889, when he was 27. The job gave him a steady salary and the freedom to paint what he wanted.
He did a lot of commission work, and became a top-selling artist. His success offered the means for him to bring his family to Maine and eventually purchase the North Haven farm.
Maine offered an escape and respite from summers in the city, and it also expanded his artistic vision. North Haven directly influenced Benson and his work, Bedford said.
He had already begun his plein-air work when he arrived, but the North Haven opportunity expanded it. His summer paintings quickly moved toward Impressionism, and were widely exhibited. They sold quickly.
At North Haven, he branched to etchings and drypoints. He purchased a printing press for his studio at North Haven, and began experimenting with the printing process and techniques. His subjects were fishermen and birds, primarily. He gave away most of his early prints, and considered the endeavor experimental.
At the urging of friends, he exhibited his prints beginning in 1915. They sold well.
“There was a tsunami of demand,” Bedford said. “He could hardly turn them out fast enough. It was a lightning response. For the next few years, articles about his prints appeared in media around the world.”
The Farnsworth show includes about a dozen etchings, all from North Haven.
A few years later, he added watercolor to his repertoire, at the urging of his son, George. They had embarked on an adventure together to the Canadian Maritimes, and Benson brought along a set of watercolors and paper. He liked the response of the paint and his ability to capture sporting moments.
In time, he mastered the medium. “And again, people wanted them instantly,” Bedford said. “He was a master of many media, and in each medium he found an immediate audience for it. He became wealthy and famous in his own time, which was unique.”
Benson’s last summer at the farm was 1941. The family closed up the house at the end of that summer with every intention of coming back. In December, the United States entered World War II.
Everything changed after that. Although he lived until 1951 to just shy of age 90, he never returned to his beloved island. He painted until the end of his life, but was in poor health in his final years.
The house and farm remained in the family for many years. It still stands today in private ownership, and hasn’t changed much. His studio is intact “and you can still feel his presence in the barn,” Bedford said.
In many ways, this show represents a homecoming for this work. Benson created these art works on North Haven, then shipped them off. They are now back, at least for the summer.
“I like to think that when he finished this work, he would crate them up and put them on the ferry. They would come here to Rockland, and then go off to Boston on the steamboat or the railroad, and then off to collectors,” Bedford said.
“So in a way, these paintings are coming home. It’s a full circle, a wonderful continuum. The Farnsworth is the perfect place to do a show like this.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: