“Summer Day,” by Frank Weston Benson collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
“Summer Day,” by Frank Weston Benson collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Summer Day" (oil on canvas, 361⁄8 x 321⁄8 in.), painted in 1911 by Frank Weston Benson (1862 - 1951), exemplifies a late flowering of American Impressionism. It is also a highly personal expression of a time, place and quality of life that only existed for a passing moment and for a privileged few. The painting portrays a lingering vestige of belle époque luxury, casual elegance, and repose as experienced by a newly prosperous upper middle class that included the artist. The first decades of the 20th century were a time shaped by the rising aspirations of a nation that had achieved mercantile and industrial preeminence; a robust optimism that would be challenged by the outbreak of World War I in Europe in 1914; and subsequent carnage that deeply affected an entire generation, including artists. In Benson's painting, however, it is still high summer in Maine and America.



"Summer people," as they are still called by natives and year-round residents of Maine, began populating the midcoast region of the state in the last decades of the 19th century, building enormous "cottages" to house extended families, relatives, visitors and, of course, servants. In 1901 the Salem, Massachusetts-based Benson began renting and in 1906 purchased Wooster Farm, a house and property on North Haven Island in Maine's Penobscot Bay, set high on a meadow with vistas to the sea. Unable not to paint, even on holiday, Benson captured summer scenes that evoke a private world full of quiet, simple pleasures whether reading, picnicking, hiking, or, as in "Summer Day," watching casual, often impromptu boat races among rival summer residents and neighboring boat clubs.



"Summer Day" is a sunny outdoor scene depicting Benson's two youngest daughters - Elisabeth, age 18, and Sylvia, age 13 - casting their eyes toward the high horizon line where the boundary between sea and sky nearly dissolves. An earlier version of the composition included a third female figure - Benson's eldest daughter, Eleanor - holding an umbrella to block the sun, and an additional wooden railing behind the group. Apparently the artist reworked the painting to simplify and open the composition, thereby allowing him to focus more intently on the visual effects of Maine's flickering light radiating off the sea, sky and figures. More speculatively, Eleanor had just returned home that summer, a new graduate of Smith College, where, to her father's dismay, she was introduced to and espoused "parlor pink" liberal views. Her removal from the painting was, conceivably, Benson's method of segregating his rebellious daughter from her younger and, in his view, as yet, untainted sisters. Politics and family tension notwithstanding, removing the third figure also concentrates attention on the youthful innocence of Benson's daughters absorbed in a moment of wordless communion as they watch the passing sailboats, a nearly perfect consonance of meaning and medium.



The soft, billowing sails on and just below the horizon reinforce a sense of gentle movement, as do the girls' cascading gowns, loosely arranged hair, and decorative ribbons, all of which are enveloped by soft ocean breezes. The painting can be seen as Benson's affectionate comparison of his young daughters' radiance and beauty to that of nature itself; an assertion of the essential equivalence between feminine grace and nature's beneficence. Benson's soft, broken brushwork appears lightly but quickly stroked, and his high-keyed palette of whites and white-inflected blues glinting off the summer sea is a ravishing display of impressionist technique perfectly tuned to his ephemeral, sun-shot subject. "Summer Day" is more than a record of a passing moment; it is a memory lingering in the modern imagination of a younger, more innocent, and altogether idyllic time and place. Then and now, Benson's masterpiece elicits that oft-heard, low, soft exhalation of late summer: "Oh, Maine."