We are grateful to Faith Andrews Bedford, author of the biography Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist, New York, 1994 and The Sporting Art of Frank Benson, Jaffrey, New Hampshire, 2000, for her assistance in cataloguing this lot.
Faith Andrews Bedford, Benson's biographer, writes, "As a boy, Frank Benson tramped the marshes near his home in Salem, Massachusetts, hunting wildfowl, sketching birds and dreaming of being an ornithological illustrator in the tradition of Audubon. After a successful career as a painter of portraits, interiors and plein air works in the impressionist mode, however, when Benson finally returned to his first love - birds - his depictions of them were very different from Audubon's. Ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson praised Benson as a painter of bird 'pictures,' paintings that focused on the birds' world, while noting that Audubon, (who killed his subjects and wired them into position) was more a painter of bird 'portraits.' Of Benson's etchings, oils and watercolors of wildfowl, a contemporary writer wrote, 'Frank W. Benson has added something imperishable--an artist's dream [Audubon] knew not; a knowledge of bird flight which places him in a class by himself' (Arthur Philpott, unidentified newspaper clipping, November 1936, Artist's Scrapbook, Benson Papers, Peabody Essex Museum). Decades of observing birds permitted Benson to portray them in flight or at rest not only accurately but also with grace and fluidity. As Benson once told a writer, 'I try to make them part of the landscape in which they occur, rather than to describe them as specimens. What I most enjoy about them is their wildness.' Noting that birds rarely pose for a picture, he said, 'My pictures of wild-fowl are entirely the result of things seen in nature and drawn from memory' (E.S. Lumsden, The Art of Etching, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1924, p. 328).
Herons and Lilies is a classic example of a memory inspiring a painting. Recalling the herons he had seen on trips to the Florida Keys, Benson portrayed them in the lily pond behind his summer home on Maine's North Haven Island. The cool blues, violets and vivid greens of his sunlit pool made a perfect foil for the snowy plumage of the herons. This striking arrangement of brilliant, white birds set against an August‑blue sky, illustrates what Benson meant when he said, 'A good picture has a certain austerity, a distinction, whether of the thing itself, the lighting, the color, or the arrangement. Mere draftsmanship, representing nature, does not make a picture' (Advice to an Artist, Benson Papers). Like Audubon, Benson was careful to depict the herons in different positions and attitudes of flight. But the remainder of the work focuses on composition, light and design, elements that Benson felt were critical in any painting. The brilliant white of the birds' plumage is echoed in both the open blossoms of the water lilies beneath and the clouds in the distance, all set off against the dark background of tropical trees reflected in the smooth surface of the water. The painting has a strong Oriental feel. The arrangement of the birds, the cropping of the top heron, the water lilies which might also be seen as lotus blossoms, recall the Japanese woodblock prints Benson saw as an art student in Paris and the Chinese screens brought home from Asian voyages by his sea captain ancestors.
Benson exhibited an earlier version of this painting at the 1934 annual exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where it won the Joseph E. Temple Fund Prize. The fact that the prize also included the purchase of the winning painting for the museum must have been most welcome in the depths of the Depression. When Benson was asked to create another version of Great White Herons (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) possibly for a collector who had admired the work at the Academy, he probably readily agreed. He was an astute businessman, as well as a talented artist, and there are several other instances when Benson created new versions of existing works for collectors who admired them.
While Benson's childhood ambition might have been to become an ornithological illustrator, his professional path diverged from his original intention. During a career that spanned nearly sixty years he mastered many media and painted a wide range of subjects, winning virtually every prize the American art world had to offer. As is evident from Herons and Lilies, when it came to portraying birds - the critics of his time agreed - Benson had no equal. His painter's eye was drawn to the design elements in nature, and these designs had a profound impact on his works. As he once said to his daughter, Eleanor, 'A picture is merely an experiment in design. If the design is pleasing the picture is good . . .' (Advice to an Artist)."
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