Modern Masters of Etching: Frank W. Benson

Modern Masters of Etching: Frank W. Benson

Modern Masters of Etching: Frank W. Benson

Modern Masters of Etching: Frank W. Benson

Excerpt

The work of the most original and virile of living American etchers is represented in the following reproductions, and in The Gunner (Plate I) we see the man himself. Nor could any other plate of the series more appropriately prelude those most characteristic of the artist, in which he has recorded, with vivid surprises of pictorial beauty and an authentic etcher's mastery, the variously conditioned flight-motions of the diverse fowl that haunt the watery wilds of North America. For, while Frank Benson is as naturally a sportsman as he is instinctively an artist, it is in his sporting pursuit of the wild birds that he finds those rich opportunities for sudden or patient observation of their activities in the air or in the water which suggest the original pictorial motives that distinguish his etchings. He loves the wild birds as he knows them with that knowledge born of the open-air naturalist's intimate love of animate nature, yet, as we look at his self-portrayal in The Gunner, there comes awkwardly to mind that grim line of Oscar Wilde's, "For each man kills the thing he loves." But Wilde was no sportsman, and even his questionable statement would be happily qualified by the reflection that the returning gunner, as he wades knee-deep in water, through miles of marsh in a driving rain, is after all carrying but three dead ducks, while on the morrow, perhaps, the morning air will be patterned with the beautiful rhythms of birds on the wing, and the sportsman's gun will rest while the artist's pencil sketches the living scene with the beauty and spontaneity of conception that his etching-needle or dry-point will translate to the copper. Yet who shall blame the casual shot which frightened that bevy of ducks suddenly into the air with a flurry of wings that inspired the very next plate Mr. Benson etched after The Gunner? That is the Benson touch, that is how he makes his sporting opportunities serve his art. In The Gunner, he has interpreted, with a very personal expression, the spirit of sport as it calls men out there with "a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied," and we have an etching of exceptionally virile conception. Here is the man to the life, a stalwart figure (I am told, by the way, that Mr. Benson stands six-foot-four in his shoes) --and the fine draughtsmanship suggests, in the carriage of the head and the knees bent against the water's resistance, a dogged defiance of the elements as part of the sport itself. But the gunner has had his day's sport--the dead weight of the birds he carries is evidence of that--and now the sportsman's sensibility merges in the artist's. How suggestively the etchers' lines are placed, showing the water vividly glittering in the evening light that carries the eye far over the marshy wild, where "long and green the grasses wave between the river and the sea." With this etching Mr. Benson came at length fully into his masterly own. Yet it is No. 52 in Mr. Adam Paff's authoritative catalogue of Benson's etchings and dry-points, already extended to three volumes, and it is dated 1915. Thereby hangs a tale.

It was while he was still a student of drawing and painting in the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that Frank Benson etched his first plate. This was in 1882; he was twenty, and the etching was of Salem Harbour, appropriately, since he was born in the famous Massachusetts town made so endearingly familiar to us by Nathaniel Hawthorne's romances and descriptions of its old-time charm, and Benson has made it always his home. This effort on the copper-plate, however, remained for thirty years unique in his career. Responding immediately to the call of Paris and its ateliers, at Julien's under Lefebvre and Boulanger he was absorbed in the study of painting, and probably forgot he had ever dabbled in etching. It was in 1885, the year he left Paris to return to America, that, as Mr. Paff tells, Benson exhibited a picture at the Royal Academy, After the Storm it was called, painted at Concarneau, and I wish I could remember whether in the course of my Academy criticisms of that year I wrote favourably of that painting, and found in it promise of the interesting and vital artist I recognise in the etchings of his maturity. Regretfully, I cannot call to mind any paintings of Frank Benson's, though it was as a painter, before ever he was considered as an etcher, that he steadily built up a reputation in the United States, and won a foremost and honoured place among American artists. When this was widely established with portraits and decorative pictures, he found his interest engaged by subjects and conditions that seemed to call for more summary treatment in black and white. He felt living form and tone responsive to the spontaneous suggestions of line, and so instinctively he took up the etching- needle again after the thirty years interval, and in 1912 etched a dozen plates, following these with a dozen in the next year, and but one less the year later.

All these plates were experimental, and few of them count at all beside those things which distinguish him as master and collectors' prize; but they are all characteristic, they all show, with the matured artist's direct simplicity of conception and probity of utterance, the striving etcher's sincere endeavour to master the craft and the idiom of his medium and gauge its expressive capacity. Several of the earlier plates were portrait-studies, some treated with pictorial charm. Indeed portraiture has always been an important phase of Benson's art on both canvas and copper, but in only . . .

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