Biography of John Prentiss Benson – realist in maritime paintings

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Biography of John Prentiss Benson – realist in maritime paintings

Self Portrait – 1943

John Prentiss Benson was born in Salem, Massachusetts, in February 1865, just two months before the Civil War ended with the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox in Virginia. There were six children born to George Wiggin Benson and Elisabeth Poole Benson between 1859 and 1972. Georgiana, the oldest, was followed by four boys – Frank, John, Henry (Harry), and Arthur. George Benson prospered as a cotton merchant in nearby Boston, and the family lived comfortably in the big white house on Washington Square in Salem. In addition to the excellent education they received in the Salem schools, the Benson children were fully exposed to the cultural and social life of Salem, and they all benefited from attending classes at Art Club, Drawing Club, and Cooking Club. Salem’s harbor and wharves were only a short walk from the house and proved irresistible to the Benson boys, who were by nature both curious and observant. Ships of all descriptions and nationalities frequented the harbor, offloading such exotic cargo as ivory, tea, wine, silk, and Chinese porcelains.

Biography of John Prentiss Benson – realist in maritime paintings
Artistic talent surfaced early in the Benson family, perhaps fostered in part by Elisabeth’s own abilities. Her oldest son recalled that his mother had “a little room” on the top floor of their house where she would go to paint and “forget about the rest of the world.

When Frank announced his decision to become an artist, he was given his parents’ blessing. John, however, did not have quite the same parental support. Family members like to repeat the anecdote that when John announced that he, too, wished to become an artist, he was told very firmly that one artist in the family was quite enough. He would need to find another profession in which to make his way in the world.

John Benson – 1885 (20 years old)

John Benson – 1885
(20 years old)

John elected to become an architect. Like his brother Frank, he knew that study in Paris was necessary for success, so he traveled to Paris in 1886, where he enrolled first in L’Academie Julian and then later at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts. When he returned to America in 1889, he quickly found employment at McKim, Mead & White in New York City. His tenure with that firm lasted less than five years. Some time around 1894 he and a fellow architect from his Paris days, Albert Leverett Brockway, formed their own firm, Benson and Brockway. Eventually both men became independent architects, but they continued to collaborate professionally and as friends.

John P. Benson – 1890 (25 years old)

John P. Benson – 1890
(25 years old)

John Benson married Sarah Bissell Whitman in 1893, and the young couple settled at first in Plainfield, New Jersey. Three children were born to the Bensons while they lived in Plainfield. In 1904 the family moved to Flushing, New York, to a handsome shingle house on the corner of Fox Lane and Bowne Avenue. The youngest child, a daughter, was born in 1905.

Although he earned his living as an architect, John Benson never abandoned his dream of being an artist. Images of ships and the sea from his boyhood days in Salem stayed fresh in his mind’s eye, and whenever he could find spare time, he turned to his beloved paints, brushes, and blank canvases with pleasure. The Fox Lane house had a studio which one of his daughters would later describe as having been “the most important room in the house.”

John and Bessie – 1893 Pictured on lunch card for their wedding day

John and Bessie – 1893
Pictured on lunch card for
their wedding day

On the occasion of his 56th birthday in 1921, John Benson’s youngest daughter recalled her father’s receiving a telegram from his brother Frank that said, “John, if you are going to paint – PAINT!” The cable itself has long since been lost, but its message was unforgettable. It must have been just the catalyst John needed. Over the ensuing months, John began to phase out his practice as an architect, and in 1922-23, he and Bessie spent the winter in England where he rented a studio and painted seven or eight pictures. He sent them back to the United States, to the Kennedy Galleries in New York City, where six paintings sold immediately.

Bessie and John Benson 1895

Bessie and John Benson

He never looked back. The following year John and Bessie spent the winter in Bermuda, and then, after selling their Flushing home, in 1925 the Bensons bought a large, handsome white house on the banks of the Piscataqua River in Kittery, Maine. Across the street from this home known as “Willowbank”, John had a studio. He kept careful records in three logbooks of the work he produced while in Maine. It is certain that he painted more than 500 canvases during his years in Kittery, and likely that there are many others for which dates are unknown. His work was exhibited in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, where he was a frequent contributor to shows sponsored by the Guild of Boston Artists. Visitors purchased many of his paintings on the spot at his studio in Kittery.

John Benson painted right up to the time of his death in November 1947, at the age of 82. He died at home, in Willowbank, and is buried in Salem, beside his beloved Bessie, at Harmony Grove Cemetery. A memorial exhibition of his works was held in 1948 by the Guild of Boston Artists, and twenty years later, in 1968, a retrospective exhibition was held at the Peabody Museum in Salem.

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