Blast From the Past: Everyone Needs a Good Assistant



John Woodhouse Audubon, John James Audubon (1785-1851). Oil on linen. New-York Historical Society, 1974.46

John James Audubon left a legacy for all of us. He studied and painted hundreds of birds with amazing realistic detail – 435 of them are published in Birds of America (1827-1838) His paintings—and his writings about the bird species — help us understand a lot about bird behavior and their environments. Charles Darwin even quoted Audubon’s observations three times in On The Origin of Species.

But Audubon would have had difficulty undertaking this enormous project all by himself. When he set out on an ornithological expedition down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in 1820, he took someone along to help. Eighteen-year-old Joseph R. Mason had been a painting student of Audubon’s when he was selected to assist. He was a very talented artist, a very good shot and big for his age. During the trip, Mason did everything from rowing the boat, shooting down birds and carrying supplies.

But most importantly, the young Mason proved to be excellent at accurately painting the environments in which Audubon’s birds would be situated. At least 50 of them found their way into the published Birds of America. These two of paintings show Mason’s name:


John James Audubon (1785-1851) and Joseph Mason, Northern Parula (Parula americana), Havell plate no. 15, 1821. Watercolor, pastel, black ink, graphite, and gouache with selective glazing on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for New-York Historical by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.15
John James Audubon (1785-1851) and Joseph Mason, Pine Warbler (Dendroica pinus), Havell plate no. 140, 1821. Watercolor, graphite, pastel, gouache and black ink on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for New-York Historical by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.140


When Mason parted ways with Audubon a couple years later, he eventually returned to Cincinnati and earned a living painting portraits. In this portrait, Mason painted a young girl who had died. This was common practice at this time as a way for families to remember their loved ones. Mason added a little personal detail in this piece…on the shelf behind the girl is a book with the title “Birds with Coloured Engravings.” Perhaps the time he spent with Audubon was still a powerful influence!


“Marie Jane Andrew” by Joseph Mason, 1841 (Indianapolis Museum of Art)

 Don’t miss the opening this weekend of Audubon’s Aviary: Part I of the Complete Flock. It will be on exhibit until May 19, 2013.


Liz Stern is an educator at the DiMenna Children’s History Museum. She likes planning fun things for families to do at the museum. She also remembers a lot of paintings of birds at her grandmother’s house.


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