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Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951) Papers

Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951) Papers

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FRANK WESTON BENSON (1862-1951) PAPERS, 1864-1976

Collection Summary

Repository:The Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum 161 Essex Street Salem, MA 01970 Phone: 978-745-9500 Fax: 978-948-6012
Creator:Benson, Frank Weston, 1862-1951
Title:Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951) Papers
Quantity:10 linear feet (18 boxes)
Abstract:The Frank W. Benson Collection consists primarily of personal, business, and family materials documenting Benson's career as an artist.
Collection Number:MSS 324

Series List

SERIES I. Personal PapersSERIES II. Business PapersSERIES III. Family Papers

Scope and Content Note

The Frank W. Benson Collection consists primarily of personal, business, and family materials documenting Benson's career as an artist. The collection contains news clippings, reviews, exhibit catalogues, photographs, awards, records of works, sketches, and correspondence about his work, exhibitions, and teaching. Materials documenting the artist's career were filed chronologically in Scrapbook #1 by Benson and his family. At the time of processing, these items were found to be in fragile condition and were subsequently removed from the pages and disbursed into series order. Clippings and correspondence that are fragile or firmly attached to the acidic pages were photocopied onto permanent paper and filed with the items that were removed from the book. Photocopies are to be used exclusively, as the full-sized pages are brittle and handling them may cause damage to the remaining attached items. See Miscellany in the Personal Papers for several items from Scrapbook #1; all other items will be found in Business Papers. The series designations are a guideline to finding materials by subject and material type; where possible items spanning series description are noted below.

Series I. Personal Papers contains correspondence, diaries, photographs, and miscellaneous items. Arrangement is chronological throughout. Subseries A. Correspondence includes letters composed by Benson to family members and to his boyhood companion, Daniel Henderson, Jr. Benson corresponded with Henderson for many years, and the letters illuminate Benson's activities and thoughts about his work as well as his personal life. Ephemera and photographs that Benson enclosed with the letters remain in place, where available. While Benson was in Paris in 1883, he sent Henderson a Christmas card illustrated with a pen and ink drawing. Other illustrated letters include an undated note to his brothers on their victorious sailing race, and a letter dated May 21, 1895, to his brother, John Prentiss Benson, on the occasion of the birth of his daughter, Marjorie Daw Benson. Family correspondents include Benson's son, George, his daughter, Eleanor, her husband, Ralph Lawson, and their children, and grandchildren. Several postcards depicting images of paintings can be found here if there is actual correspondence on the verso. Blank postcards are filed with the photographs documenting Benson's work.

Subseries B. Diaries consists of diaries from fishing and hunting trips which include events and details of sporting activities, and lists of the catch. Subseries C. Photographs contains numerous photographs documenting hunting and fishing excursions. Early portraits in the collection include a carte de visite of Benson in Salem circa 1880 and a cabinet card dated December 1882. In London in 1885, Benson posed for a photograph with fellow art student Joseph Lindon Smith and Henry FitzGilbert Waters, the noted Salem historian and genealogist.

Subseries D. Miscellany includes: a passport granted to Benson in 1883 and stamped in Havana and Puerto Rico; Essex County, Massachusetts, birth record certificate; and two autographs, dated 1901 and July 9, 1945. From Scrapbook #1 are membership certificates/licenses for Long Point Company Shooting Club in Ontario; two poems about sporting (author unknown); a letter of commission for Benson as first mate on The Golden Hind, the boat of his nine-year-old grandson, Ralph Lawson, Jr.; and a poem entitled "Cruise News" dated April 27, 1911.

Series II. Business Papers contains correspondence, manuscripts, sketches and drawings, printed materials in the form of clippings, ephemera, and serials. Subseries A. Correspondence includes award announcements, many in the form of telegrams, communication with museums and galleries and agents about exhibit arrangements, and letters of congratulations from friends and fellow artists. Fifteen letters, transferred from the Autograph Collection, remain housed together along with a short typescript description of each (Box 3, Folder 1). Most of these letters are addressed to Alice Flint Brooks ( -1926), the manager of the SMFA for twenty years, and concern scheduling and student affairs.

Correspondence from Scrapbook #1 does not necessarily have only business associations; many letters addressing his work are from friends and family. Additionally, the subject of the letters may also be of a more personal nature, for instance, Edward S. Morse extends praise and birthday wishes to Benson in 1923. In 1938, Edmund C. Tarbell died several months before a joint retrospective exhibit with Benson opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Letters of admiration and condolence set to Benson in 1938-1939 were in Scrapbook #2 with ephemera from the exhibit, but have been removed to more stable housing in Business Correspondence.

In a letter dated May 23, 1922, Benson writes to William Wardwell and declares the wash drawing purchased by the latter to be his finest, and that he painted it while salmon fishing during the summer of 1921. A list of names, duties, and wages paid for the guides and assistants on the Bonaventure River trip of 1921 appears with the correspondence from Scrapbook #1. An instance where Benson provides insight into his thoughts on his work is a typescript copy of a letter sent to Mr. Gibb, where Benson states that he learned etching by studying nature, not by studying the methods of producing an etching (Box 3, Folder 2).

An interesting find in this collection is correspondence between Adam E.M. Paff and Houghton Mifflin concerning the costs, profit potential, and contract for the publication of the Paff catalogues, The Etchings and Drypoints of Frank W. Benson. Paff sent these items along with a letter to Benson asking him to keep the documentation of the agreement because he was about to embark for Europe.

Although Benson taught art students for many years, he did not write articles or his memoirs. A rare view into his thoughts on his work is "Advice on Painting from FWB," compiled by his daughter, Eleanor, from the oral critiques he gave her initial forays into painting. Additionally, Subseries B. Manuscripts and Works on Paper includes several drawings and quick sketches, most notably a sketchbook from a trip to Puerto Rico in 1883.

Subseries C. Photographs consists of photographs kept by Benson as reference for new compositions (Scrapbook #3) and as a record of his career (Scrapbooks #1 and #5). Photographs of paintings and etchings appear in many formats and conditions. Many have notations on the verso naming the purchaser of the original. Few of the photographs in the collection are dated. Dates appearing on photographs of paintings are generally the date the work was complete, exhibited, or sold, not the date of the actual photograph. Organization of the prints is based upon subject of the image: wildfowl, portraits, figures, sporting, landscapes, still life, and interiors. Items that are oversize or extremely fragile are housed apart from the subject groupings (see Contents List). One of these items is a mounted engraving with twenty-two signatures of the guests at a banquet hosted by Samuel Shaw to honor Benson for winning the Shaw prize at the Society of American Artists 1896 exhibition (Box 7, Folder 1).

Subseries D. Honors contains honors granted to the artist which are represented in the collection by medals, certificates of award, and an academic hood worn by Benson when granted an honorary degree by Tufts College. Detailed entries in the contents list include date, level of award, granting institution, and the work housed with the medals; however, the list does not correspond directly to the medals in the collection and has been separated. For a more complete listing of the awards granted to Benson, see The Sporting Art of Frank W. Benson by Faith Andrews Bedford (see Bibliography listing).

Subseries E. Financial Records contains two account books, each recording investments and professional accounts, and records of works, which provide details such as title, buyer, price, date and location of completion, date purchased, and location of exhibition. The lists of works are grouped by agent and media.

Clippings, exhibit catalogues, and periodicals provide reproductions, criticism, and biographical information about Benson in Subseries F. Printed Materials. Scrapbook #2 contains clippings and ephemera relating to a joint exhibit with Edward Tarbell in 1938, and obituaries, biographical sketches, and memorial shows for Tarbell and Benson. Ephemera from Scrapbook #1 is mainly comprised of exhibit catalogues and invitations. It also includes an advertisement for a charity raffle which offered prizes of one Benson etching, ten Rhode Island Reds, or eight pairs of silk stockings, to be given May 30, 1922. This subseries also contains many reproductions of Benson paintings and etchings clipped from newspapers, magazines, and catalogues. Most clippings contain at least the title of the work.

Series III. Family Papers contains items related to Benson during his lifetime, such as the family journals of 1881-1883 and a letter from Max Rogers in 1922 addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Benson, concerning the Rogers family visit with the Bensons prior to the wedding of Rogers and Elisabeth. Most of the family correspondence was collected by, or is addressed to, Sylvia Benson Lawson and contains genealogical information, information about identifying and appraising works, and a record of the deposit and donation of this collection. Photographs that were sent with correspondence have been kept with the letters. A family album with photographs taken at North Haven, Maine, includes family members posing for plein-air works and some images of Benson painting. The earliest dated photograph in this collection is a cabinet card portrait of Ellen Perry Peirson, Frank W. Benson's wife, when she was 16 years old in 1876.

Benson's mother-in-law, Ellen Perry Peirson (1828-1903) was the wife of Dr. Edward Brooks Peirson (1820-1874) of 13 Barton Square in Salem. Ellen's 1864 diary provides brief descriptions of her daily activities and some news of family and friends involved in the Civil War.

Biographical Sketch

Frank Weston Benson was born March 24, 1862, the son of George Wiggins Benson and Elisabeth Frost Poole Benson of 46 Washington Square, Salem, Massachusetts. In October 1888, he married Ellen Perry Peirson (1860- ) of Salem. They had four children: Eleanor Perry Benson (1889-1959, m. Ralph Lawson, 1913); George Emery Benson (b. 1891, m. Corinne Speck Loney); Elisabeth Benson (b. 1892, m. Charles MacPherson Adustin "Max" Rogers); and Sylvia Perry Benson (b. 1898, m. Ralph Lawson, 1959).

A successful and critically acclaimed artist, Frank W. Benson, is considered a master of American Impressionism, and of three media – oil, watercolor, and etching. He studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) in Boston, and the Académie Julian in Paris. Benson launched his career painting portraits, and soon became known for his careful attention to the effects of light in both his studio settings and his outdoor scenes with leisurely summer motifs. He experimented successfully in new media while continuing to paint in oils throughout his career. Beginning in the 1890s, he began to portray wildfowl and sporting scenes in black and white wash drawings. He then moved to watercolors to depict sporting, landscapes, and still life. Benson experimented with etching as a student at SMFA, and again took interest in 1912, creating numerous plates depicting sporting and wildfowl. As with his watercolors, the prints from these plates were popular and many sold before they were even dry.

Ellen and the children often posed for his paintings. Occasionally, he took photographs of the family posed outdoors, and used the prints for reference in the studio. As an avid sportsman, his fishing and hunting expeditions served as inspiration for many of his paintings and etchings. He also used photographs of wildfowl and of his companions engaged in sporting to complete his works.

Benson's first teaching experience was instructing the Salem Evening Drawing Class while he was studying in Boston. For a short time, he was an instructor at the Portland, Maine, Society of Art and of summer classes in New Hampshire. In 1889, he began teaching at his alma mater with fellow graduate Edmund C. Tarbell. Under their custodianship, the SMFA trained many well-regarded artists and expanded in number of students, course offerings, and into new facilities.

As his career progressed, Benson's work became increasingly popular. In 1889, he received his first award, the Hallgarten Prize, and went on to be known as "America's most medaled painter," winning every major American award during his working life. The Society of American Artists honored Benson with an election to the organization; however, he resigned in 1898 over the Society's conservative response to the budding Impressionist movement. Benson and nine other artists, known as "The Ten," at the forefront of American Impressionism displayed their work in annual shows that were held in New York and traveled to other cities.

Throughout his career, his works were influenced by the landscape of Essex County, Massachusetts, and the coastal region of New England. Many of Benson's best-known Impressionist outdoor works were composed at the family summer home on the island of North Haven, in Maine's Penobscot Bay, and his sporting and wildfowl scenes at his hunting retreat overlooking Nauset Marsh on Cape Cod.

His appreciation of wildfowl was reflected in his personal life as well as his work. He served as the first president of the Essex Ornithological Society in 1916. Later, he supported wildfowl conservation efforts by designing the second duck stamp and was a charter member of Ducks Unlimited. He designed the masthead of the organization, in use from 1938-1966.

Benson was a founding member of the Guild of Boston Artists, established in the classical sense of an artisan guild – to promote and provide resources for Boston-area artists. For 37 years, he served as a trustee of the Peabody Museum of Salem. In 1915, he designed a new seal for the institute that reflected the tripartite character of the museum's interests and marked the occasion of the name change from the Peabody Academy of Science to the Peabody Museum of Salem. He was also elected a member of the Essex Institute in 1894 and remained so until his death in 1951.

Index Terms

This collection is indexed under the following headings in Philcat. Researchers desiring materials about related topics, persons, or places should search the catalog using these headings.

Benson, Ellen Peirson, 1860-
Benson, Frank Weston, 1862-1951
Benson, George E. (George Emery), 1891-
Brooks, Alice Flint, d. 1926
Henderson, Daniel, Jr.
Lawson, Eleanor Benson, 1889-
Lawson, Sylvia Benson, 1898-
Paff, Adam E. M. (Adam Edwin Merriman), 1891-
Peirson, Ellen Perry, 1828-1903
Rogers, Elisabeth Benson, 1892-
Tarbell, Edmund Charles, 1862-1938
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. School
Account books
Impressionism (Art)
Salem (Mass.)


Restrictions on Access

The contents of box 14 are restricted due to the fragile condition of the materials. Photocopies of the items in box 14 are available within the subject arrangement. Photocopies of the Benson family journals in box 17 are for study purposes only. Requests for permission to publish material from the collection must be submitted in writing to the Manuscript Librarian in the Phillips Library for approval by the family. Additionally, no living family member may be quoted, nor any photographs reproduced, without express written permission from the family.

Administrative Information


Requests for permission to publish material from the collection must be submitted in writing to the Manuscript Librarian in the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum. No living family member may be quoted, nor any photographs reproduced, without express written permission from the family.

Preferred Citation

Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951) Papers, MSS 324, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.


The bulk of the collection was deposited by the heirs on March 3, 1970, with additions on April 14, 1975, February 22, 1977, January 27, 1978, and photocopies of the family journals in March 2002. Fifteen letters from the Essex Institute Autograph Collection were transferred in 1976. Letters collected by Daniel Henderson, Jr., were donated by the heirs in 1976, and a single Frank W. Benson letter addressed to William Wardwell was donated April 1, 2002. The drawings done as a student (Box 4) were donated by Faith Andrews Bedford in October 2016 (acc #2016.022).

Processing Information

Collection processed by Jean Marie Procious, February 2004. Updated by Tamara Gaydos, October 2016.

Related Material


Bedford, Faith Andrews. Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist. New York: Rizzoli, 1994.

Bedford, Faith Andrews. The Sporting Art of Frank W. Benson. Boston: Godine, 2000.

Bedford, Faith Andrews, Laurene Buckley, et al. The Art of Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist. Salem, Mass.: Peabody Essex Museum, 2000.

Bedford, Faith Andrews, Susan Faxon, and Bruce W. Chambers. Frank W. Benson: A Retrospective, May 17-June 24, 1989. New York: Berry Hill Galleries, c1989.

Benson, Frank W. Etchings and Drypoints… an illustrated and descriptive catalogue, with an original etching by Mr. Benson and reproductions of all the plates, compiled and arranged by Adam E. M. Paff. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1917-1959. (vol. 1, 3-5)

Benson, Frank W. Frank W. Benson's Etchings, Drypoints and Lithographs: An Illustrated and Descriptive Catalogue. Summit, N.J.: Hickok-Bockus, c1994.

Benson, Frank W. A Selection of Prints by Frank Benson. Summit, NJ: E.S. Hickok, 1982.

Chamberlain, Samuel. "Frank W. Benson – The Etcher." The Print Collector's Quarterly 25.2 (1938): 167-184.

Peirce, Heman Winthrop. The History of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1877-1927. Boston: T.O. Metcalf Co., 1930.

Whitehill, W.M. The East India Marine Society and the Peabody Museum of Salem: A Sesquicentennial History. Salem, Mass.: Peabody Museum, 1949.

Related Collections

Frank Weston Benson Papers, 1913-1933. Acc. 2001.024

Frank Weston Benson Papers, 1929-1990. Acc. 2004.011

Frank Weston Benson Papers, 1930-1980. Acc. 2004.008

Phillip Little Papers, 1838-1942. Fam. Mss. 559

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