Though William Sidney Mount’s name is rarely mentioned except among art experts, the images he created are timeless Americana—skillfully rendered scenes full of homely comforts and the joy of life…
“How glorious it is to paint in the open fields, to hear the birds singing around you, to draw in the fresh air—how thankful it makes one.” —William Sidney Mount
When America was young, our sense of self was formed through paintings. The portraits of Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley instilled civic pride, while the panoramas of the Hudson River School showed the Sublime in our landscape. But Americans especially delighted in pictures that reflected our everyday lives. In contrast to more idealized forms of art, genre painting conveyed humor, wisdom and realism in familiar settings, with character types we immediately recognized. A good genre picture had a story to tell and, perhaps, a moral to teach—even if the message had to be puzzled out by the viewer.
This type of painting was practiced with mastery and sensitivity by William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), one of the most respected American artists in the period before the Civil War. Mount’s paintings spoke directly to Americans with down-home visions of their lives—scenes of labor and leisure, merrymaking and mischief, usually set in a pastoral paradise that could be anywhere in the country but most often reflected his native Long Island, New York.
Mount remained close to home all his life, declining to study abroad as did many of his colleagues. For him it was a matter of national pride: “I might be induced by the splendor of European art to tarry too long, and thus lose my nationality.”
Yet far from ignoring the European tradition, Mount proudly continued it. With flair and imagination, his paintings transpose the genre scenes of the Old Dutch Masters into nineteenth century America. Mount had no need to go to Europe to see those pictures; they were all around him in the collections of New York, which still had pockets of Dutch culture from its days as New Amsterdam.
The influence is unmistakable in one of the artist’s best-known paintings, The Long Story (1837), especially in the rich color scheme of cozy browns and the meticulous rendering of detail. The scene is a country inn, where the proprietor listens to an invalid customer tell the longest story he has ever told; it is near closing time, and the customer has already tired out every other frequenter of the establishment.
That is the artist’s own explanation of The Long Story. Yet Mount’s pictures can withstand more than one interpretation. Seeing the picture as a youngster, I imagined that the man at left had been robbed on the road, that the innkeeper at right had taken him in, and that the standing man in black was a detective investigating the crime. Another possibility is that the injured man is telling a “tall tale” making himself out the protagonist of a heroic exploit, but that the cards spilling out of his hat indicate that his misfortunes were brought about by gambling.
Mount got his start as an apprentice sign painter to his older brother, all the while studying art at the National Academy of Design in New York. His first artistic efforts—biblical and historical scenes—are frankly stiff and awkward. It was when he turned to painting everyday life in America that Mount’s genius took flight.
The Power of Music (1847) may be his crowning achievement. It depicts a scene of impromptu music-making on a farm. Inside a barn, two white men sit listening intently to a young fiddler play. Outside, a black laborer stands and listens to the music with equal pleasure and understanding. He is an outsider, yet the music joins him in his humanity to the men inside. The painting becomes more poignant when we consider that it was made in the years leading up to the Civil War, when the fate of African Americans would hang in the balance.
Upon viewing The Power of Music, an early critic declared: “Never have we seen the faculty of hearing depicted as here.” The scene is rendered so realistically that we can practically hear the slow, sad strains of the violin.
Mount was one of the first American artists to depict black people with dignity and individuality, and his canon is full of striking images of black subjects—especially musicians like The Banjo Player and The Bone Player. The farmhand in The Power of Music is the centerpiece of the picture, the character we identify with and long remember.
Given the prominence of music-making in Mount’s paintings, it comes as little surprise that he was an avid fiddler and composer of folk tunes. He was also an inventor whose creations include an artist’s studio-on-wheels (an increasing necessity as he grew older) and a hollow-backed violin with a louder sound for use in dance parties.
Mount was indeed something of an American “Renaissance man” whose many interests were integrated in harmony with his life and a broader vision of the world. He even took an interest in spiritualism—communing with the souls of the dead. After one séance he claimed to have contacted the spirit of Rembrandt, who told him reassuringly, “you are the leading national painter of your country.”
Throughout, Mount maintained the image of an independent (he never married) homespun individual who preferred the simple country folk of Long Island to the glitter of New York City. It was in his own neighborhood of Stony Brook that he found all the rural scenes and characters that populated his pictures. He took a lively interest in the politics of his day, and kept active journals which record his thoughts on art and life as well as his social activities in his community.
Today, the Long Island Art Museum keeps Mount’s torch burning by exhibiting their extensive collection of his work, with special exhibits like the recent “Perfect Harmony” which focused on the artist’s special fusing of art and music.
Although William Sidney Mount’s name is rarely mentioned except among art experts, the images he created are timeless Americana—skillfully rendered scenes full of homely comforts and the joy of life.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Farmers Nooning” (1836) by William Sidney Mount.