I am featuring yet another new-to-me Salem artist today, Mary Mason Brooks (1860-1915), who worked primarily in watercolors over her career. Mary’s biography is spare: the obituary in the 1915 American Art Directory consists of only two brief lines: a painter in water colors, died September 20, 1915. She was born in Salem, Mass, studied in Rome and Paris; exhibited in New York and Boston, her home being in the latter city. I can fill in these lines a bit: she was born into an old and well-connected Salem family, grew up on Lafayette Street, and her father was the long-time Secretary of the Essex Institute who also published quite a few antiquarian pieces over his long career. After her training in Europe, Mary returned to Salem briefly and maintained a studio and school in the famous “Studio” at #2 Chestnut Street among her fellow Salem artists, but she was off to Boston and Jamestown, Rhode Island by her early 30s. She had both family and friends in Jamestown, located right over the bridge (then ferry!) from Newport, where an artists’ colony was emerging and where she eventually died, “suddenly”, at age 55. That’s about it for the written record on Mary Mason Brooks: her works are going to have to embellish her character for us. And there are many: it is apparent that Miss Brooks was no dilettante, but rather a professional, working artist. Most are watercolors: some European scenes, lots of flowers and trees, several structures, the occasional (appropriate for a Salem girl) ship. But the most charming–and in many ways most revealing–work of Miss Brooks that I could find is a book illustrated by her after its publication: a one-off edition of Eleanor Putnam’s Old Salem (1886 & 1899). This charming little book is a collection of previous-published Atlantic Monthly articles written by Harriet Leonora Vose Bates, who preferred to use the pseudonym of her ancestor Eleanor Putnam, published posthumously in two editions. It is basically a series of reminiscences about the stuff of old Salem—shops, schools, homes and things–which Miss Brooks illustrates in her special edition.
I think it’s pretty gutsy to illustrate a book after its publication, and after its author’s death! And to sign your name right there on the title page! Miss Brooks probably thought her special edition would never see the light of day, but it made its way on to ebay, of all places, a century after her own death. I like the marginalia, which transforms a charming but mere book into something else entirely, but I also feel that I should present some of the artist’s more formal works which were represent her public oeuvre. They testify to a life well-lived, if short, in some beautiful places.
Watercolors by Mary Mason Brooks: Lumber Schooner; Garden of Poppies, Isles of Shoals; Three European Views, Skinner Auctions; and my favorite, a watercolor of the pool at Haleiwa, the Horace Sears Estate in Weston, Massachusetts, Weston Historical Society.