Maud Mason’s youth in rural Russellville, Kentucky, gave little indication of the distinguished career she would later enjoy in New York’s elite art circles. Having little in the way of formal education, she and her two sisters likely began decorating “china blanks” during their teenage years as a way to supplement the family’s income. This “opportunity for making money as well as a love for beautiful things” probably precipitated Mason’s pursuit of an artistic path, first in ceramics and later as a painter.
After a time spent working as a china decorator in Toronto, Canada, by 1895, Mason was living in New York and taking classes at the Art Students League with William Merritt Chase, whom she credited with sparking her interest in still life and floral subjects. While he is most closely identified with American Impressionism and plein air, Chase was also a fine still life painter who worked in the tradition of the seventeenth-century Dutch masters. Another League instructor, Arthur Wesley Dow, had a profound influence on Mason’s aesthetic as well. A seminal figure in the Arts and Crafts movement and an esteemed educator, Dow stressed the importance of color and composition and believed in the transformative power of art.
Like Dow, Mason became a teacher and leader in the arts community and was especially influential among the growing number of professional female artists. While she often spent the winter teaching design or creating ceramics, she regularly devoted the warmer months to painting, executing watercolors and still life works in oil. This pattern of alternating activities invigorated the artist, who appreciated the “renewed and refreshed interest” she felt following “the change of work and thought.” Mason enjoyed active membership in a number of significant arts organizations including the National Arts Club, the Society of Ceramic Artists, and the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, which she served as president from 1912 to 1917. As an associate member of the National Academy of Design, she regularly participated in its annual exhibitions from 1914 through 1950.
Maud Mason never married, but lived most of her life with her sister Elizabeth, whom she praised as her “right hand and . . . greatest help and inspiration.” Elizabeth and her wealthy husband, Benjamin J. Vanderhoof, divided their time between New York and New Canaan, Connecticut, where they owned an historic home with beautiful gardens. As a member of the Vanderhoof household, Maud too became an avid gardener, flower arranger, and flower show judge.
Depicting a large bowl of dahlias from the sisters’ garden, Still Life was probably painted in the 1920s or early 1930s. White blooms with deep yellow centers dominate the composition and are reflected in the shiny surface of the circular ebony table that supports the container. In the background, an open window is filled with loosely painted green foliage, while three brown branches create a strong diagonal. Behind the flowers to the right hangs a navy and white textile, a reference to one of Mason’s collections. In the right foreground, a book with a blue cover and red pages provides a rectangular contrast to the flowers, focusing the viewer’s eye on the table. This foreshortening mirrors Japanese art and heightens spatial awareness, lending the traditional still life a modern twist. This colorful and soothing painting was typical of Mason’s work which continued to find favor with audiences long after most artists had embraced more avant-garde styles.