“Look, dear ones, this is the difference a bit of cadmium yellow can make,” says Frank Mason as he shows his 25 landscape-painting students how to create magic on canvas. Holding a fine-tipped, number five sable brush in his steady right hand, he dabs at a student’s painting and, in a few deft strokes, begins to transform it from muddy to miraculous. “See how that makes the tree come forward; how it pops out? Now it’s richer! Lighter!”
Like a general addressing his troops, Mason turns to the semicircle of hushed students and explains, “Whistler thought a painting should make a big statement. That’s what we’re after here.” Then with a hearty laugh that bubbles up from deep within his 6’3” frame, he splashes on “a slop” of purple paint to the foreground of the Vermont mountain scene and carefully, expertly, works it in. Delighted with the transformation, he leans his head back, waves his arms in the air and bellows, “FAN-TAS-TIC, no? IN-CRED-IBLE, yes? Now we’re getting somewhere!”
“The Old Master” is how some of his students refer to Frank Mason. It’s a fitting tribute, especially when one realizes the title has nothing to do with chronology, even though he is 87, but everything to do with respect. “Frank was inspired by, and paints in the tradition of, the Old Masters like Velasquez, Rubens or even Rembrandt,” says longtime Mason student and Ohio-based artist Jack Liberman. “And he has worked tirelessly to pass on that tradition to his own students.” Tom Wolfe has labeled him “an inspiration for generations of artists.”
Since 1951 when he replaced Frank DuMond as a teacher at New York’s prestigious Art Students League, Mason has been preaching from the gospels of the Old Masters. He spent years investigating their techniques, uncovering their long-lost paint formulas and emulating their love affairs with what he calls “the light effect.” So strong was his bond to these fabled painters that in the 1950s he helped publicize the improper cleaning of Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces. Many credit Mason with helping to alert the world to the controversy.
“It is a sin what restorers have done to so many of those great paintings!” says Mason. He and others claim that the top layers, the glazes, of many paintings were removed in a misguided attempt to clean the works. “Look at the Sistine Chapel and other masterpieces; they’ve been terribly flattened,” he explains. “Often what we see today is not what the Master intended.” He winces as he mentions, “In my opinion over-zealous ‘restorers’ completely removed the Mona Lisa’s eyebrows during a ‘cleaning’.”
Inspired by the long-vanished technological “recipes” of the Old Masters, Mason insists on preparing his own canvases, mediums, varnishes and oil paints. As he demonstrates to a visitor in his New York City loft how he grinds and mixes his own paints he explains, “So many artists have lost touch with true color. It just can’t be squeezed out of a tube.” Using a marble muller to mix walnut oil into freshly-ground white paint, he says, “Rubens had apprentices grind his paint fresh every morning. That’s where those miraculous colors came from.”
Frank Mason’s classical paintings--his portraits, still-lives and landscapes--have earned him scores of international awards and honors. He’s been commissioned to paint the portraits of princes, cardinals and governors, and is a member of the Royal Society of Arts, the National Academy of Design and President Emeritus of The National Society of Mural Painters. His monumental “Resurrection of Christ” hangs in New York’s Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. His eight paintings of the Life of St. Anthony of Padua were permanently installed in Venice’s 11th century Church of San Giovanni de Malta. They hang alongside a painting by Giovanni Bellini and earned Mason the Order of Malta’s Cross of Merit. He is thought to be the first painter to receive the honor since Caravaggio. When someone asked Mason what he felt when he recently re-visited Venice and saw his paintings next to Bellini’s, he answered, “I felt like I’m holding my own!”
Mason and his wife Ann live in a romantic 19th century, two-floored loft studio in New York’s Little Italy. The expansive space, a former police handgun factory, is chock full of oriental rugs, a baby grand piano, a potbelly stove, a life-size replica of the Winged Victory of Samothrace (once owned by Frederick Church) and scores of Mason’s paintings. Shortly after moving in 50 years ago, the painter chopped a 10 by 20-foot hole in the roof for a skylight to catch the morning’s Northern light.
He paints here several days a week and still teaches at the Art Students League where his classes are always oversubscribed. “I feel an obligation to pass on what was taught to me,” he explains. “You have to give back.” Each summer he teaches a month-long landscape painting class in Stowe, Vermont. Why Vermont? “It’s a beautiful state, it reminds me of the Lake District. The light is breathtaking; it is jewel-like. And those mountains! Whatever they do, they cannot destroy the Green Mountains.”
As a romantic realist painter, Mason admits that he and his ilk are only just beginning to be “re-discovered” by today’s art world. “Experimentation has replaced so much of traditional art,” he explains as he sips a cup of herbal tea beneath “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” his massive, nearly-finished scene of the Nativity. “The World Wars influenced all of art and art began to reflect man’s misery. We’ve lost so much.”
Mason, however, is optimistic that classical art will regain its rightful place in the art world. “Modernism has been dying a slow death; we will climb the mountain again,” he says. “You can’t kill genius!” Says writer and art critic Tom Wolfe, “By 2020 young artists will reflect upon the ‘Modern Art’ of the 20th century, chuckling, rolling their eyes and saying, ‘But they were serious!’ They will look back to a handful of artists like Frank Mason who kept skill alive during that entire bizarre interlude. By 2020 work like Frank Mason’s will be called, ‘Neo-Renaissance’.”
Mason often likens the contemporary art world to a countryside that has been paved over with concrete. Eventually, the concrete will crack and a single blade of grass will beak through. Many people think Mason is that blade of grass.
Maybe he is. To his thousands of devoted students Frank Mason is all that and more. Several years ago he was lecturing to his landscape painting students in Stowe. They had set up their easels and oil paints near the Trapp Family Lodge to paint the valley and mountains that had so entranced the family made famous by the “Sound of Music.” The sun was setting and a big storm was rolling across nearby Mount Mansfield. But Mason decided to show the class quickly, before the rains came, how to paint a rainbow.
“Imagine a great big rainbow right there, across the valley,” he told them and turned to paint one on a student’s canvas. The group huddled behind Mason and watched intently as the Old Master crafted a strikingly beautiful rainbow. He made it look so easy. As he added a few final touches to the rainbow, students began muttering. Then someone said, “Frank, look. Look at the valley.” Remembers Mason, “I turned and looked. It was unbelievable. The storm had cleared and there was the most beautiful rainbow you’d ever seen. It stretched from one side of the valley to the other! Exactly where I’d painted it!”
- Robert Kiener, 2008