Moving from the earnest mystic light of the Church paintings, the underlying moral darkness of Homer's paintings becomes clearer. Throughout his long and productive life there was always an edge to his work, especially in the larger, more formal oils. He was sometimes relaxed when doing his wonderful watercolors, but I suspect he had seen rather too much in the war to ever be sanguine about what can lie just beyond any moment. He is said to have commented on the sniper subject in "Sharpshooter," a soldier in a tree with a long rifle and telescopic sight, that it was a close to murder as anything he knew.
BENSON: EVEN MORE IMPRESSIONIST “Elisabeth Sewing” uses light and figure beautifully.
There's little of that subtext in the work of his lesser-known contemporaries, but there was always skill. One need only glance for a moment at the big presentation drawing of the McLellan house by the Stevens firm to see the proficiency that was part of the normal training of the day. Paintings made by the "Brush 'uns" group of plein-air painters, of whom Stevens was one, confirm the technical ability common in that community.
In 1883 Benson studied in Paris with Gustave Boulanger, history painter and epitome of French academic art. He also saw the work of the Impressionists, particularly Claude Monet. Benson was a superb painter, and over the course of his long career won practically every award and honor available to an artist. His most Impressionist, and one must use the word loosely, works were done in the brilliant light of his summer home on North Haven Island, off Rockland.
In Benson's hands, Impressionism stops being an idea and becomes a style. Young ladies in their white summer dresses with long skirts, high collars, sleeves, and big hats radiate sunlight, warm breezes, grace, and class. Summer for them is picnics and parasols. However pensive the young woman in the white veil may look, it seems likely she would greet a visitor with the formal courtesy common to the times. It's to Benson's credit that he can load what is essentially a study with so much unspoken information.
All three, Church, Homer, and Benson, to some degree were playing to the crowd. Church was famous early, especially for his panoramic views of exotic places like the Andes or Niagara Falls. Benson, like his contemporaries Twatchman and Tarbell and others, were resistant to the commercial pressures of their day, but like artists at any period were sensitive to the demands of the market and moved in fairly rarefied social and economic circles. Consider the big portrait of James Phinney Baxter by Joseph Kahill in the Portland Society show; that's Boulevard Baxter. (His son Percival gave the state Mackworth Island and the eponymous state park.) It was also common to paint the colorful locals hauling nets or furling sails, but in Homer one can see real empathy for his subjects.
The unaddressed subtext here is that as art was passing from Church to Homer to Benson, another cloud of important ideas was forming in Europe. True modernism — the idea set, not the style — was giving rise to a new, self-reflexive way of thinking about how we understand ourselves and communicate through art. Meaning was moving from the subject to the work itself, and that casts these artists in a different light. But that's a story for another day.