Frank W. Benson (1862-1951)
Old Tom, 1926
Etching with drypoint on laid paper, plate dimensions: 15 x 10 inches, paper dimensions: 17 1/2 x 12 1/4 inches
Signed in pencil lower left: "Frank W Benson"
Edition of 150
Framed in dark lacquer molding with silver, metal leaf trim, archival mat, and ultra-violet protection, non-reflective glass.
In his 1931 Frank W. Benson, N.A from the American Etchers series Charles Lemon Morgan referred to this portrait as “one of the most majestic figure subjects ever etched which for eloquence and power can only be compared with the greatest of Millet’s powerful presentations of the human form.”
The figure depicted is Thomas Nickerson of Eastham, Massachusetts who was a principle caretaker of an old farmhouse on Nauset Marsh in North Eastham which served as the artist's hunting lodge. Attracted to the property by the presence of black ducks and whistlers, Benson and members of his extended family purchased the property in 1891 and the time he spent there inspired many of his sporting subjects.
Nickerson met Benson and his companions at the train station, kept their traps and nets in good working condition, cleaned the game or fish, and prepared meals. He also frequently aided as a hunting guide and often joined the sportsmen in shooting at which he was said to be highly accurate. He was described by a visitor to the hunting camp as being "indispensable to the party." Following his death in 1923, Benson painted a watercolor (now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) of Nickerson dressed in yellow oilskins holding a side by side shotgun and a dead bird which served as the inspiration for the present work . Here, however, his subject becomes more imposing and is elevated to near heroic status resulting in a more powerful overall effect.
Frank W. Benson was one of the most important American impressionists. He was a founding member of the group known as the Ten American Painters which also included Childe Hassam, John Twachtman, J. Alden Weir, and Edmund Tarbell. Along with Tarbell, Benson taught several generations of students at the Museum School in Boston. In midlife, after establishing a stellar reputation for sunlit paintings of women and children (as well as for studio portraits), his focus shifted to scenes of hunters, fishermen and, game birds. It was these pursuits that earned him the title of "Master of the American Sporting Print." This interest, however, was not new to the artist. As a young man he enjoyed hunting and fishing and had wished to become an ornithological illustrator in the manner of John James Audubon.
His first known oil paintings were of a rail and a snipe and as his style developed he created etchings and paintings of sporting subjects that were vibrant and animated. As Faith Andrews Bedford writes in her 2000 The Sporting Art of Frank W. Benson, "Their sense of line and composition, design and movement set them apart from mere illustration. Although the ornithologist's eye is obvious in Benson's sporting work, he was not in the words of Roger Tory Peterson, a painter of 'bird portraits.' Rather, Peterson felt, he was a painter of 'bird pictures,' with all the elements a pleasing picture requires. Although as a young boy Benson may have dreamed of becoming an ornithological illustrator, it is the good fortune of succeeding generations of art lovers that he did not."
Aside from an early effort, Benson began making etchings and drypoint engravings in earnest in 1912. In 1915, on a whim, he included 16 prints into a show of his paintings at the Guild of Boston Artists. He did not think they would draw much attention and was surprised when the gallery called asking for additional impressions. Apparently intrigued with the process and pleased by the public response he produced an amazing 52 etching and drypoint plates over the next year. Over the course of his career, he made 355 etchings and drypoints, with the majority related to his experiences as a sportsman and bird-lover. As his reputation soared, his prints were held in such high esteem that his standard editions of 150 were generally fully subscribed before he had even printed them. Many collectors kept standing orders with their dealers for new Benson prints.
Benson is commonly acknowledged as the creator of the American sporting etching and is still widely considered the all-time master of the art. Whether rendering a flock of geese hovering between marsh and sky or a woodcock rising from the brush, he combined ornithological accuracy and an understanding of the mechanisms of avian flight with a rare ability to convey a sense of motion. In Frank W. Benson's Etchings, Drypoints and Lithographs, John T. Ordeman employed the following quote by Benson from a 1935 Boston Herald story: "You will realize that a subject of this nature [birds] will hardly ever pose for one, and my pictures of wildfowl are entirely the result of things seen in nature and drawn from memory. I try to make them part of the landscape in which they occur rather than to describe them as specimens. The thing I enjoy most about them is their wildness."