The art-viewing public knew Frank Benson for his depictions of traditional American girlhood [08.326], but works like The Silver Screen illustrate his fifty-year preoccupation with still life. Here Benson uses carefully selected studio props to pay homage to his roots in Salem, Massachusetts,...
The art-viewing public knew Frank Benson for his depictions of traditional American girlhood [08.326], but works like The Silver Screen illustrate his fifty-year preoccupation with still life. Here Benson uses carefully selected studio props to pay homage to his roots in Salem, Massachusetts, and to explore the impact of Japanese culture and the emerging Colonial Revival style on interior decoration. Benson’s records show that, from 1919 through 1936, he painted one large-format oil still life per year during the winter months in his studio on Boston’s Riverway. He most likely worked on The Silver Screen there during the winter of 1921, using fruit instead of out-of-season fresh flowers to augment his composition. A plain silver and bronze Japanese screen provides the backdrop for a clear glass fruit bowl, a small ceramic vessel, and a Chinese ginger jar. These objects rest on an early American gate-leg table partially concealed by three oriental silk fabrics draped over its top. One of these, a pale yellow kimono, has been tossed carelessly aside, as if shed hastily by its wearer. The ginger jar, standing alone at the right like a dignified sentinel, provides a strong vertical element echoed by the stark panels of the screen, the legs of the table, and the folds of drapery.  Benson considered design the most important part of a still life, and he selected studio props for their color, shape, and texture to create a harmonious composition. Benson had featured the gateleg table in his still life paintings since 1917, when he paired it often with other colonial objects like brass candlesticks and a pewter cream pitcher. His interest in early American furniture dates back to his Salem youth, when Benson family friend Henry Fitz Gilbert Waters introduced Frank and his brothers to antiques and encouraged the boys to collect them. Waters had amassed one of the first collections of American antiques in his home years before the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia initiated the craze for American colonial furniture, decorative arts, and architecture. Through Waters, the Bensons met two men instrumental in founding the Colonial Revival movement in Massachusetts. Art critic Clarence Cook identified American antiques as symbolic of the United States’ cultured past and advocated their use in decorating the modern home. Cook’s nephew, architect Arthur Little, wrote one of the country’s first books on colonial architecture in 1878 and designed one of the earliest examples of a Colonial Revival country house. One year later, Benson began his lifelong friendship with Arthur’s younger brother, Philip, commuting with him to Boston by train to attend the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and visiting the Littles at their summer residence. The connection between the two families was strengthened further when Frank’s brother John accepted an architectural apprenticeship with Arthur Little in 1884. The oval gate-leg, or drop-leaf, table became the primary symbol of the Colonial Revival movement and appears more often than any other piece in turn-of-the-century Boston interiors. Used frequently in early-seventeenth-century American homes, the table regained popularity after the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, where it appeared in the “New England Kitchen” exhibit. Benson’s close friend and fellow Boston School painter Edmund Tarbell [1985.66] first used the gate-leg table as a compositional element around 1904, and Benson adopted it himself in 1911. The two apparently shared ownership of a number of tables—some antique originals but mostly reproductions—and these appear frequently in Benson’s paintings between 1911 and 1921. Benson also included Asian elements in his compositions, identifying Salem’s role as one of the principal centers for interest in Japanese art and culture. Immediately following the Philadelphia Centennial, Japanese-export fans, ceramics, and folding screens flooded the Western market and showed up in houses like the one at 2 Chestnut Street, Salem, where Benson rented his first studio in 1886. In 1890, Asian-export items became available at Almy’s Department Store in Salem, and he undoubtedly bought his Asian props there from the store’s chief importer, Bunkio Matsuki. While colonial brass candlesticks and antique furniture appear often in Benson’s paintings before 1917, Asian objects appear in most of his still lifes from the late 1910s and 1920s. Benson purchased numerous Chinese screens from Matsuki, but his supplier for Japanese examples like the one depicted here probably came from Salem supplier N. H. Hatch. In his seminal 1878 decorating book The House Beautiful, Clarence Cook advocated using folding screens to break up a room and to provide a sense of privacy. Similarly, Benson used this screen to accent an otherwise stark studio space and to enhance the three-dimensionality of the props assembled in front of it. From 1911 through the 1920s, Benson included colorful Asian textiles in his still lifes to highlight Salem’s affluence and also to emulate the richness of paintings by the much-admired seventeenth-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, who often draped surfaces with fabrics not intended as tablecloths. Of the fabrics Benson featured in his own works, Peabody Essex Museum curator Dean Lahikainen writes: “By far, the most effective use of textiles is seen in The Silver Screen, where three different fabrics create a symphony of color” and “a dynamic linear pattern that adds great energy to the overall composition.” Blue, pink, and yellow silks contrast sharply with the pale silver glow of the screen and the reflective quality of the table’s contents, while dark pigment around the edge of the coat, on the top and bottom of the jar, and on the table legs serves to balance the composition. Benson invented still life elements when necessary, but he took care to represent the Chinese ginger jar in The Silver Screen with almost photographic accuracy. Still in the Benson family, the jar dates from the Qing dynasty (about 1650). Archival photographs show that Benson’s use of color, placement of figures, and abbreviation of landscape elements on his painted jar appear identical to the real object. He most likely acquired it, along with its nineteenth-century teak carved stand and top, from well-known Boston importer Yamanaka. Benson and his fellow Boston School painters allied themselves closely with the Arts and Crafts movement, which valued hand-crafted objects of superior quality. As a result, the group—including Edmund Charles Tarbell [1985.66]—commissioned most of their frames from Carrig-Rohane (Gallic for “red cliffs”), a shop founded by talented artists specializing in elegant hand-crafted frames based on seventeenth-century Dutch prototypes. The Silver Screen is still in its original frame—created, signed, and dated 1921 by one of the Carrig-Rohane founders, Walfred Thulin, who opened his own shop around 1912. Benson’s annual exercises in still-life painting resulted in a series of canvases that relate to one another, often featuring the same objects in different arrangements (two such works are Still Life, 1925, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and Still Life, 1926, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.). The thickly pigmented surface—Benson used a palette knife in some areas—and broad brushwork reflect his more relaxed, mature style, while retaining the keen sense of design, solid draftsmanship, and commitment to capturing the beauty of things that ground Benson firmly in the tradition of the Boston School. Originally, Benson gave the MFA painting to famed Boston tailor and future Benson collector F. L. Dunne, in exchange for a lifetime of hand-tailored suits. Dunne went on to acquire a large collection of Benson paintings, which he passed on to his daughter in the late 1930s.  Notes 1. Faith Andrews Bedford, "Frank W. Benson: Master of Light," in The Art of Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist, by Faith Andrews Bedford et al., exh. cat. (Salem, Mass.: Peabody Essex Museum, 2000), 37. 2. Clarence Cook, The House Beautiful: Essays on Beds and Tables, Stools and Candlesticks (New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1878), 188–89. 3. Arthur Little, Early New England Interiors: Sketches in Salem, Marblehead, Portsmouth and Kittery (Boston: A. Williams, 1878). 4. Dean Lahikainen, “Redefining Elegance,” in The Art of Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist, by Faith Andrews Bedford et al., exh. cat. (Salem, Mass.: Peabody Essex Museum, 2000), 91–92. 5. Erica E. Hirshler, “‘Good and Beautiful Work’: Edmund C. Tarbell and the Arts and Crafts Movement,” in Impression Transformed: The Paintings of Edmund C. Tarbell, by Susan Strickler, Linda J. Docherty, and Erica E. Hirshler, exh. cat. (Manchester, N.H.: Currier Gallery of Art, 2001), 102–3. 6. Bedford, "Frank W. Benson: Master of Light," 56 n. 65. Victoria Ross
Lower right: F.W. Benson/1921
The artist; to F. L. Dunne, 175 Bay State Road, Boston, 1921; to Miss Alice M. Dunne, 175 Bay State Road, Boston, by 1938; to Mr. and Mrs. John Dorsey, Wellesley, Mass.; with Vose Galleries, Boston, 1979; to MFA, 1979, purchase.
A. Shuman Collection—Abraham Shuman Fund