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Roy M. Mason: Sporting Artist
by Victoria Sandwick Schmitt
Twentieth-century sporting artist Roy Martell Mason (1886 - 1972) earned critical acclaim and a national reputation within his lifetime. Commercial success freed him from commission restraints and allowed him to explore subjects on his own terms. Remarkably, though Mason's paintings are part of permanent museum collections across the country, the artist remains best known among a few contemporary wildlife artists, and in the small upstate city of Batavia, New York, where he lived most of his life.
For six decades, Roy Mason painted unspoiled American landscapes through the eyes of hunters: the camaraderie of sportsmen and guides, and the mysteries, grace, and action of game birds in flight. He poetically rendered America's outdoor life in both watercolor and oil, with subtle colors and decorative patterns. The works evoke his lifelong awe and delight with nature and its inhabitants.
Artists specializing in sporting subjects have found ready markets for their works in homes, manors and the hunting lodges of well-to-do sportsmen since the seventeenth century, but most aroused little interest from critics and scholars. Mason proved the exception.
Roy Mason was born on a farm in rural Gilbert Mills, near Syracuse, New York. His father, Frank E. Mason, was a farmer turned gun engraver, and described as "a wonderful fellow and a marvelous wing shot," who "let his farm go to pot from the opening of the snipe season to the close of the duck season." Roy grew up with a shotgun, a fishing rod, and a sketch book.
The elder Mason instilled his interest in drawing and the outdoors in all three of his children; both of Mason's siblings became accomplished painters as well. Older sister, Nina Mason Booth, specialized in portraiture and floral still-life; younger brother, Max W. Mason, painted impressionistic landscapes. True art editor Harvey Van Valkenburg marveled at the family's influence: "Would you believe that Mr. Mason never went to an art school -- that he attributes his success to his wonderful family who raised him close to the ground, but taught him to keep looking up?"
About 1890, the family moved to Batavia, New York, where Frank worked as an engraver for the Baker Gun & Forging Company. Roy Mason's earliest known published works are shooting scenes that appeared on the cover of the Baker's August, 1903 catalogue; the artist was only 17 years old.
The extent of Mason's formal art training was a correspondence course and informal study with the academically trained, highly respected American landscape painter Chauncey Ryder. Ryder was well-known for mountainous landscapes with stripped trees. Mason sought him out in the 1920s to obtain a critical analysis of his own work. The two developed a long friendship. Mason greatly admired Ryder and credited him with much of his success. In 1948, Ryder wrote to Mason: "The days we used to have together have never been repeated."
Ryder and Winslow Homer were two of many artists whose style Mason absorbed, usually, through visits to galleries where their work was exhibited. Mason did not mirror their art, instead he assimilated their techniques into his own work.
Apparently, a third prize award in the Strathmore Watercolor Paper contest clinched Mason's decision to seriously pursue his art career. In its January 1909 issue, The Outing Magazine ran an article illustrated with Mason's paintings, wherein the young artist described his prize: a trip to Puerto Rico. The publication regularly featured work by a variety of important American artists including Charles M. Russell, George Luks, and Ernest Blumenschein.
On the heels of this success, Mason left for Philadelphia. He worked as a commercial artist, first for the Ketterlinus Lithographic Company, and eventually, in his own studio. Two important events occurred in Philadelphia: he entered his first art exhibition held in the galleries of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with a watercolor, and he married his Batavia sweetheart, Lena Seitz. He later wrote, "Two things made for a happy life -- to be able to paint and to be married to the right wife."
By 1917, Mason was back in Batavia, working at F. E. Mason & Sons, the firm his father and brother established several year prior to manufacture labels and embossed seals. Roy continued to paint, producing what Rochester artist and critic Clifford UIp later described as "an astonishing output of pictures, [made] mostly on weekends and brief vacations, and his national success should prove an inspiration to those individuals who have an interest in art but are not privileged to devote their entire time and energy to art pursuits."
Western New York furnished many subjects for the artist, but hunting and fishing trips outside the region filled his palette and sketchbook. Mason summered near Shadigee, north of Medina on Lake Ontario, hunted ducks with friends at Mud Lake in Ontario, Canada, and explored the Gaspé Peninsula, Tennessee's Great Smokies, the Carolinas, Virginia, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
The late 1920s proved to be watershed years for the artist, then in his forties. In 1928, he was invited to join New York's Salmagundi Club. In 1929, he earned the Fellowship Prize from the Buffalo Society of Artists in an exhibition at the Albright Art Gallery. In 1930, the National Academy of Design elected Mason an Associate member. Numerous awards and honors followed, drawing national recognition to Mason's artistic talent.
In the 1930s Mason frequently exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, as part of National Academy of Design exhibitions, and in well-known New York commercial galleries such as Macbeth's and Cronyn & Lowndes. The city's newspapers frequently singled out Mason's work in art reviews. His notoriety continued in later years, when Grand Central Art Galleries handled his work. One critic described Mason's hunting pictures as "the most ingratiating things he shows." Another praised his "ability to express something altogether different about a landscape with figures."
Mason paintings toured the nation as part of American Federated Art exhibits: The Currier Gallery in Manchester, New Hampshire (which houses Mason's work in its permanent collection); the Collins Art Gallery in Fort Worth, Texas; and William Smith College in Geneva, New York. He exhibited alongside Andrew Wyeth, Millard Sheets, his old friend Chauncey Ryder, and six others in a special 1938 exhibition at Cornell University.
Mason's work in oil won his election to the National Academy of Design. But during the 1930s, he increasingly exhibited watercolor paintings. Critics singled out these works for praise; it was this medium with which the artist became identified. A 1939 Boston review enthused, "one or two of his watercolors are among the best seen here this season" and called Mason "a poet who sifts nature through his own personality." In 1934, Mason was elected to the National Watercolor Society.
During the 1930s, Mason also showed a grouping of non-hunting subjects. Several powerful, well-received satirical character studies including The Music Master, Old Time Religion, Roundhouse Regan, and The Democrat demonstrate Mason's apt abilities with human portraiture. They were, apparently, his only major public venture outside sporting art. Art museums began to acquire Mason paintings during this decade. Archie and the Guides went to the University of Iowa, while Big Starbuck became part of the collection of an art museum in Reading, Pennsylvania.
During 1940 and 1941, Roy Mason took nearly every major national prize for watercolors. The National Watercolor Society honored him with the Zabriskie purchase prize. At the Chicago Art Institute, he won both the Logan purchase prize for watercolor and the Watson Blair purchase prize. As a result, the Institute acquired Going All T' Hell, a painting of two longshoremen watching a small craft break-up on rocks. In 1940, Mason became a full Academician of the National Academy of Design. The end of 1941 held Mason's crowning achievement -- what Ada Rainey of The Washington Post described as "an unusual occurrence for an American artist" -- a one-man showing at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Fine Arts for the month of December.
Though the bombing of Pearl Harbor overshadowed this honor, Mason's exhibition was enthusiastically received by Washington's public and reviewers. Leila Mecklin of The Sunday Star connected Mason's explorations of outdoor American themes to Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent -- with whom he had exhibited in a special American Watercolor show at the Macbeth Gallery in 1939 -- but judged Mason's works to be "essentially his own."
She added, "[he] simplifies his compositions and transcribes them with great spontaneity, eliminating the nonessential but retaining the spirit which gives significance. To be able to do this requires exceptional ability and assurance." Mecklin recounted a remark she overheard from another visitor at the show: "The more often you see these pictures, the more they mean to you."
Roy Mason's paintings collected awards, prizes and medals for the next quarter century. Perhaps most meaningful to him were the Audubon Artists Gold Medal of Honor at the National Academy of Design for Billie Blueye and Family in 1945, and the 1961 Gold Medal of Honor from the National Watercolor Society for Banner Queen Trading Post. Galleries in Miami, Phoenix, St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Buffalo, and Los Angeles handled his work; Mason's paintings found their way from New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.
Mason remained active in Western New York art circles as well, frequently exhibiting at Buffalo's Albright Art Gallery and the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester. Mason became a charter member of the Batavia Society of Artists in 1950; the group continues to hold a national-juried art exhibition annually in his memory. He joined a group of Rochester and Buffalo artists, that included his sister, known as "The Rationalists," formed in 1939 to promote "soundness and sanity in art." The group adopted a conservative stance toward, what they perceived as, radical developments in contemporary art.
Several regional artists enjoyed informal nature sketching trips with Mason. Among them was Norman Kent, printmaker (wood cuts, wood engravings, and linoleum cuts) and Hobart College art history professor. When Kent became editor of American Artist magazine, he catalogued and promoted Mason's art to his readership.
Kent defined "Mason's niche in American landscape art" as "dealing with the common landscape in an uncommon way." He identified a "kinship" between Mason and "the beautifully patterned art" of early nineteenth-century British watercolorist John Sell Cotman. Kent argued:
Mason counted artists across the country as friends, among them N.C. Wyeth, Gordon Grant, and Hobart Nichols. He filled his home with their works and usually bought directly from the makers.
Mason seemed universally well-liked. A Buffalo journalist described him as "an artist-sportsman...a follower of lonely trails, and a good fellow...." Artist Frederic Whitaker wrote to Roy, "After watching you in action, I can easily understand how you have acquired the title of the swellest fellow on earth."
Part of Mason's charm lay in his sense of humor, a quality sometimes evinced in the titles and subjects of his paintings. George Mahaney, a hometown friend and hunting, fishing, and sketching companion explained: "No matter what you were doing, you had more fun doing it with Roy."
The artist was generous with his own paintings, bestowing them as gifts to friends on special occasions. He gave three paintings to the Rochester Museum & Science Center in 1959, a year after the museum conferred a Fellowship for his contribution to a finer perception of outdoor America and for his excellence as an artist.
Mason's contribution to American sporting art was, in many respects, unique. He grew up at a time when men of means pursued vigorous outdoor activities, often, as antidote to industrialized, urban living. America's attraction to English field sports in the late nineteenth century spawned the development of private clubs where wealthy men met to pursue riding, shooting, fly fishing, and so on. Some traveled to exotic locations -- the American West, Africa, and Europe -- to hunt. Their interest created a market for sporting art that benefited Mason and other artists, including Carl Rungius, Wilhelm Kuhnert, Ogden Pleissner, and Percival Rosseau.
Mason kept his farm roots, presenting scenes with a poetic sensitivity that spoke even to those who did not hunt. His pictures are devoid of elitism or masculine images of conquerors bagging large exotic game. They did not share the British emphasis on possession and ownership of horse, hound, or land. Nor did Mason fabricate the "heroic" aspect of the hunt, so popular on the continent, in which the kill assumed utmost importance.
Rather, Mason's attention was wrapped in a myriad of unspoiled settings, weather and atmosphere, the spirited relationships of sportsmen and guides, November skies, and the beauty and form of birds in flight.
Mason introduced to his audience the ordinary events of sporting life: the process of hiring a boat, conversations between hunters at sunset or guides at the end of a season, the shimmering silence of a deserted southern fishing camp, outlines of an abandoned boathouse, hillside mist rising after rain, the crackle of an autumn hike.
Mason presented his outdoor scenes with constantly fresh eyes. In his own words, he never painted "an exact reproduction of a thing or place. What the artist can add or eliminate in charm of color, style or fleeting effect of atmosphere, makes the picture. An exact reproduction can be better made with a camera."
With photography, representational artists could arrest action and paint with clarity. Mason, however, did not use cameras to the degree of most twentieth-century wildlife artists. Norman Kent noted, "the only duck willing to pose quietly is the Long Island variety, served on a platter -- wild ones move like lightening and usually when one least expects it!"
Mason relied on memory, decades of observation, and a portfolio of about 500 sketches. Because he never delineated detailed, taxonomic representations of birds, the method served him well.
Until 1958, when both his siblings died, Mason resided in rural Western York, where he and Max had built adjoining homes at "Woodchuck Hollow" outside Batavia. He lived as a self-described "rustic character", who tried to "keep away from the big cities."
Avid birders, Roy and Lena Mason wintered several years in Florida, Arizona, and Texas. Famous for his Reader's Digest, True, and Collier's covers, Roy attracted attention in these places, exhibiting in both public and commercial galleries. In 1959, the Masons retired to La Jolla, California.
Mason had exhibited on the West Coast for years; the artist quickly built a new circle of close friends and admirers. In addition to familiar sporting subjects, he began to paint beach and seascapes. In 1965, he donated a dozen works to the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla, where a corridor was named for him.
A stroke rendered the artist unable to work during the last six years of his life. Roy Mason died in La Jolla on August 13, 1972. Lena Mason, his wife of 59 years, lived on until 1991.
Little has been written about Mason since his death. In 1974, two California doctors published a book of his paintings and sketches (now out of print), and Sports Afield featured Mason as "America's Forgotten Outdoor Artist" in a 1987 cover story. A small, but important, collection of Mason paintings, assembled by the late Rochester businessman and sportsman John L. "Jack" Wehle, is seasonally exhibited at the Gallery of Sporting Art of the Genesee Country Museum in Mumford, New York. Rochester-area art collectors, from the late Margaret Woodbury Strong to Charles Rand Penney, Herbert W. and Joan M. Vanden Brul, include Mason paintings among their holdings, as do many modest Batavia residences.
Two major factors contributed to declined interest in Mason's art: recent ambivalence and, in some instances, outright hostility toward hunting; and his narrative and representational approach, considered conservative and traditional. Yet within the genre of sporting art, Mason's output was both unique and inventive. His portrayals of North America have a facility that, at their best, approach sublimity, while at the same time, convey a distinctively American appeal and sense of optimism. For these qualities and his poetic record of the twentieth-century American sporting scene, this artist should not remain forgotten.
1 Harvey Van Valkenburg, True Magazine, May, 1946.
3 Chauncey F. Ryder to Roy Mason, November 3, 1948.
4 Roy Mason to Gerhard Miller in a letter quoted in James L. Kelley and Lee S. Monroe, Roy Mason N.A., A.W.S.: His Working Sketches and Watercolors, United States, 1974, p.9.
5 From a newspaper article in the artist's scrapbook: Clifford M. Ulp, "Bevier Features Roy M. Mason Paintings," Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Sunday, November 17, 1940.
6 From a newspaper clipping in the artist's scrapbook hand labeled "New York Herald Tribune, [Royal] Cortissoz, March 25, 1933."
7 From a newspaper article in the artist's scrapbook: E.C. Sherburne, "New York Exhibitions," The Christian Science Monitor, Boston, Monday, March 27, 1933.
8 Newspaper clipping in the artist's scrapbook, "Vose Galleries."
9 From a newspaper article in the artist's scrapbook: Ada Rainey, The Washington Post, Sunday, December 7, 1941.
10 From a newspaper article in the artist's scrapbook: Leila Mechlin, "Roy Mason Exhibits Paintings at National Museum: Water Colors and Oils Show Ability and Assurance," The Sunday Star, Washington, D.C., December 14, 1941.
12 "Forward" to brochure on the Rationalists inaugural exhibition, 1939; original in the Rochester Public Library Local History Division.
13 Norman Kent, "The Watercolors of Roy M. Mason," American Artist, April, 1946, pp. 15.
14 From a newspaper clipping in the artist's scrapbook hand labeled "Buffalo News, November 6, 1934, Bill Hekking."
15 Frederic Whitaker to Roy Mason, October 8, 1945.
16 Telephone conversation with the author.
17 From a newspaper article in the artist's scrapbook: "Batavian's Paintings Win Acclaim in World of Art" hand labeled "Buffalo Evening News 1930"
18 Kent, p.12.
19 From a newspaper article in the artist's scrapbook: Jacqueline Taylor, "Batavia's 3 Painting Masons Serve Each Other as Critics; Roy Is Showing in N.Y. Now," Buffalo Evening News, Wednesday, October 22, 1952.
About the author
Victoria Sandwick Schmitt is a former art and history curator and educator at the Genesee Country Village and Museum and Rochester Museum & Science Center in Rochester, New York. She is the author of Four Centuries of Sporting Art and Images: "Afro-Rochester" 1910-1935, as well as articles and monographs for Rochester History, The Magazine Antiques, American Art Review and The Museum Theatre Journal. Currently Schmitt serves as president of Corn Hill Navigation, a nonprofit corporation founded in 1991 to improve and sustain the Erie Canal and Genesee River for current and future generations through education, awareness and enjoyment. She most recently authored the biography, "Rochester's Frederick Douglass," published in Rochester History.
Resource Library editor's note
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on February 26, 2009, with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on February 6, 2009.
This article appeared in the April - May 1996 issue of American Art Review.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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