A beautiful historically inspired maiden with a sword amidst Moorish castles and architecture. A dazzling charcoal rendering by the Polish emigrant W.T. Benda, a frequent cover artist for LIFE, Hearst’s, and The Shrine Magazine. Benda is perhaps best remembered today for his elaborate theater masks which made him the toast of New York City during the roaring 20s jazz age. He also favored images of exotic European and Asian ingénues with mysterious foreign features and dress.
Benda illustrated during the “Golden Era” of American Illustration, which ran from approximately 1880-1940.
Benda himself had an international background. He was born in Poznan, Poland, and drew from his earliest years. After a false start in civil engineering at the Krakow college of Technology, he switched to the Academy of Fine Arts. In the 1890s he was accepted into Vienna’s prestigious School of Fine Arts. In 1898 young Benda moved with his family to America where he attended the Art Students League in New York and the William Merritt Chase School where he studied under Robert Henri and Edward Penfield.
Benda joined the Society of Illustrators in 1907, the Architectural league in 1916, and became a naturalized American in 1911. Benda was proud of his Polish heritage and contributed several poster designs for recruiting Polish patriots during World War I. It was the era of the pretty girl, and his “Benda Girl” work joined the rest, but she stood out as intriguingly exotic among the American types. Her success kept Benda busy working for magazines for many years.
Around 1914 Benda turned to more sculptural pursuits. He began making beautiful and realistic theater masks. He was often referred to as the premier mask maker of the early 20th Century. Four years before his death, he produced a handsome, profusely illustrated book, Masks (Watson-Guptill, 1944).
As his career drew to a close, he did less illustration and spent more time on his masks. Benda died on November 30, 1948, at the age of 75. He had suffered a massive heart attack while waiting to give a demonstration of his masks in the auditorium of the Newark Public School of Fine and Industrial Art.