The girls of summer

Frank Benson and Edmund Tarbell at the MFA and the Peabody Essex  
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  August 10, 2006

Mercie Tarbell cuts flowers
Americans, Henry James wrote in 1867, “can pick and choose and assimilate and in short (æsthetically, etc.) claim our property wherever we find it.” In 1867 Frank Weston Benson and Edmund Charles Tarbell hadn’t yet found French Impressionism — both were just five years old — but when they did as student artists in Paris in the 1880s, they followed James’s prescription. Both are represented in the Museum of Fine Arts’ “Americans in Paris 1860–1900” and the Peabody Essex Museum’s “Painting Summer in New England,” and together they tell a story of American — more specifically Boston — Impressionism, one that doesn’t necessarily end the way James would have written it.

They were born just a month apart, Benson in Salem, Tarbell in West Groton. Both studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Académie Julian in Paris; both were married in 1888, Benson to Ellen Peirson, Tarbell to Emeline Souther; both joined the faculty of the MFA School the following year. In the 1890s they shared a studio on St. Botolph Street in Boston, taught classes in New Castle, on Great Island, opposite Portsmouth, and painted together in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. In 1897 they broke away from the Society of American Artists and became founding members of Ten American Painters; in that same year the New York writer Sadakichi Hartmann coined the word “Tarbellites” to describe the Boston School, a conceit that can hardly have flattered Benson. They remained lifelong friends (Tarbell died in 1938, Benson in 1951); in 1900, however, Benson and his family began to summer in Maine, eventually settling on North Haven in Penobscot Bay.

Eleanor Benson seems to be waiting for them
Hartmann could as easily have called the Boston School the “Bensonites,” but that aside, they were hardly the same artist. At the MFA, Benson’s Eleanor (1907) and Tarbell’s Three SistersA Study in June Sunlight (1890) hang next to each other. Tarbell painted Emeline seated between her two sisters in the garden of the Tarbells’ Dorchester house and holding their new baby, Josephine. He’s flattened the picture plane and streaked the abundant foliage and the ladies’ summer dresses with light, and Emeline’s poufy red hat is the painting’s focal point (with an echo in the red rose that Josephine holds), but the faces and bodies resist the vibration of their surroundings, and Emeline’s pursed, almost pinched lips — her usual look in her husband’s work — suggest that motherhood is no garden party.

Benson’s portrait of his eldest daughter is a little tighter in its landscape, a little freer in its face and figure. Seated on the porch of the family’s North Haven home, picture hat in hand, ocean in the distance, 17-year-old Eleanor evokes Newport in the way that James writes about on the opening page of “Daisy Miller”: “There is a flitting hither and thither of ‘stylish’ young girls, a rustling of muslin flounces, a rattle of dance-music in the morning hours, a sound of high-pitched voices at all times.” Eleanor seems perched on the railing, waiting, as if a young gentleman were about to enter along the white picket fence and whisk her off. Remote North Haven was not Newport; one wonders what kind of social life she had.

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