Joseph Mason was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and attended John James Audubon’s classes in drawing in Cincinnati. He traveled with Audubon on a flatboat to New Orleans and drew at least fifty flowers for Audubon’s bird paintings. Upon his return to Cincinnati and without further training, Mason became a portrait artist. In 1834, he left Cincinnati and painted portraits in Michigan and Indiana. He died of pneumonia at age thirty-four.
The portrait of Marie Jane Andrew, age, 7, was commissioned in memory of the girl soon after she died. She is dressed in an elaborate early Victorian costume and seated among the objects of her childhood; a sewing box, school books, treasured sea shells, and a Staffordshire pottery figure of a dog. In addition to offering a wealth of information about the decorative arts of the period, this portrait is an excellent example of a self-trained professional portrait artist working in the nineteenth century. Mason had difficulty rendering such simple objects as a book, a table top, and a chair in proper perspective. The little girl’s extremities, too, are less than convincing. The artist’s sense of composition and design makes up for any shortcomings in technique. The piping on the child’s dress creates an interesting play of lines with the gold chain about her neck; the window encasements direct the viewer’s eye to her head, the focal point of the picture. The portrait is an interesting example of a picture within a picture. The painting of a boy in the upper left is believed to be the girl’s brother, James, who had also died very young. The distant landscape, seen from the window, is probably their familyl home.
Irving T. Richards. “Audubon, Joseph R. Mason, and John Neal,” American Literature, Vol.. 6, No. 2, May 1934, pp. 122-140.
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