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Painter To The People

June 2024
11min read

In the rural scenes and native landscapes of William Sidney Mount a naive young America saw itself reflected to the life

“ Originality is not confined to one place or country, which is very consoling to us Yankees, by God!” So wrote the artist William Sidney Mount.

Mount was in America the father of “genre,” as the painting of scenes of everyday life is called. When, as a young man, he stepped, sketchbook in hand, into his own barnyard, he was almost as much of an artistic explorer as if he had stepped onto the surface of the moon, “ft is a delightful locality,” he wrote of his native Long fsland. “No wonder Adam & Eve having visions of the future, was [sic] glad to get out of the Garden of Eden …”

Mount hymned the pleasures of his rural American neighbors: farmers’ hushed courtings of village coquettes in firelit parlors, and the raucous ardors of barn dances to the accompaniment of banjos and violins. He showed an old man telling endless tales by the stove of a country tavern and young men luxuriously sleeping in noontide shade between sessions of reaping. He sent fishermen out into the soft glow of delicious American springs.

Mount’s village boys are not cute sprites, simpering as they carry little girls’ books home from school: they play when they should be doing chores, and are about to be switched. Always he painted with a humor that banished sentimentality. This did not save him from being attacked by writers of the 1930’s for presenting too idyllic a view of American life. None of his characters is unhappy or sickly or underfed. His tramps wear becoming rags. Where, the Depression generation asked, was Mount’s social conscience?

Mount painted his best pictures before the Civil War, when such a gift as no other nation had ever before enjoyed—a fertile, almost uninhabited continent—was still falling ripely into the American hand. He could not, without affectation or personal dyspepsia, take a gloomy view. He jotted in his journal, “I wrote with my finger on the bridge in the white frost, ‘God is good.’ The Great Invisible Spirit has dealt very kindly with me, and I am very thankful.” He liked a picture that “meets you as a friend because the grateful heart of the artist meets you on the surface.”

Mount spent his formative years in hives of rural conviviality. Born during 1807 at his father’s tavern in Setauket, Long Island, he was moved, on that parent’s death, to his grandfather Hawkins’ tavern at nearby Stony Brook. In both houses art mingled endlessly with high jinks, for his family was as rich in eccentric creators as Hasty Pudding. To begin with, there was his uncle, Micah Hawkins, the “haggard and soulful-eyed” greengrocer whose comic opera, The Saw Mill, or a Yankey Trick , was one of the first by an American to be successfully produced. Hawkins was an inventor of that international rage, blacklace minstrelsy. On Long Island, he wrote humorous epitaphs of great verbosity that were actually carveel on huge gravestones, and in his New York City grocery store he anticipated the twentieth century by playing, on a piano secreted beneath the counter, mood music that induced housewives to buy more pickles.

William Mount’s three brothers shared his itch for art: one became a musician and dancing master; the other two became, like William, painters. Henry, the oldest, led off as a sign painter so adept at swinging handsome pictures over the street that he was elected to the National Academy of Design. Although apprenticed to a carriage maker, Shepard Alonzo Mount taught himself to be a successful portraitist. When William’s turn came, he was put in Henry’s New York City shop to learn sign painting. This family initiation into the craft aspects of art so suited the budding master that, when given an opportunity to work as an assistant to the celebrated portraitist Henry Inman, he quickly fled that semi-sophisticated studio. He was impelled back to the family circle, he explained, by “the desire to be entirely original.” Yet Mount’s first paintings were conventional efforts at an internationally fashionable mode. Obeying the dictates of accepted convention, he shunned his own experience and painted Christ Raising the Daughter of Jairus. The picture, which was exhibited in New York at the National Academy in 1828, displays correct melodramatic gestures and the neoclassical draperies that were the uniform of “the grand style,” yet the twenty-one-year-old beginner did not depart completely from his own experience. For the sickbed from which Jairus’ daughter has just risen, Mount did not imagine a Biblical couch or a classical divan. He carefully delineated an ordinary four-poster like that in which he himself slept at his Long Island home.

This ungainly and incongruous piece of furniture was his subconscious protest against a weight of tradition his conscious mind could not at first deny. Although during the seventeenth century Dutch painters had specialized in genre such as Mount was soon to paint, the emphasis had been local to Holland, and was soon washed under even there. International taste considered the deeds and possessions of ordinary men so mean that they should not be taken seriously, and classed genre as the lowest form of art. Fame was reserved for painters of imaginative scenes of greatness, usually from the past, for depictions of noble acts by religions or mythological heroes, the achievements of generals or kings.

Effective protest against this esthetic existed at the time of Mount’s young manhood in only one nation: England. When the Long Islander was still a child, David Wilkie had developed a rich vein of Scottish genre, and John Constable, by ignoring warnings that earth and sky were worth painting only as backdrops for fine emotions or heroic human deeds, had opened up in landscape painting an approach to the contemporary and non-ideal that paralleled genre. Constable was, it is true, still waiting for official approval, but Wilkie’s gay scenes of country life had long been accepted by leading English connoisseurs. Widely disseminated in engravings, Wilkie s compositions may have encouraged Mount to make his own leap into painting the ordinary.

Young Mount returned from New York City to rural Long Island, and there he created at the age of twenty-three The Rustic Dance , showing a bumpkin standing up with his girl in a bare room while a colored man fiddled and other couples either watched or flirted. Shown at the National Academy in 1830, the picture was praised and bought. Mount painted others in the same vein, which were acclaimed by a public that had long been restive under a “grand style” imported from abroad and unsuitcd to what they were experiencing in the United States: the first flowering of the era of the common man. Before he was thirty, Mount had won over even the leaders of
local art fashion. Critics and connoisseurs agreed that he was a glorious prophet of a truly American art.

His success marked the second major revolution in American taste within a few years. In 1825, Thomas Cole, another very young man—he had been twenty-four—had electrified the public by exhibiting landscapes which claimed and seemed to prove that wild American scenery, although not “elevated” by myths or heroic deeds of the historical p>ast, was noble and beautiful, worthy of the highest achievements of the most skillful brush. [ See A MERICAN H ERITAGE , October, 1957.] Around Cole were already gathering the landscapists who were to form the Hudson River school. Mount was to father a similar movement in genre.

As soon as Mount’s importance was recognized, his patrons and his dealers offered again and again to pay his way to the great cities and fabled art galleries of the Old World. He always refused to go, asserting that he was not “fashionable enough” to “desert” the scenes of his childhood. However, he could not really have considered that a short student trip would be desertion. The truth was, as he sometimes admitted, that he was afraid. He never felt that he was soundly enough grounded in his own style to expose himself to the seductive wiles of international taste. He was even bothered by European books, complaining that there was “enough written on ideality—and the grand style of Art, &c, to divert the artist from the true study of natural objects.”

That this was not altogether stupid provincialism is shown by the experiences of his English colleagues. Like Mount, Constable refused ever to leave his homeland. And Wilkie, who did, had reason to reglet his temerity. During the iSao’s, he had become infected on the Continent with the “ideality,” the “grand style” Mount feared, and he was now painting inferior, muddled pictures.

Mount admonished an author friend: “Stick to Nature. Seek out strange characters, sympathise with them, write down their strange, eventful lives front their own lips. My word for it, you will reach the hearts of thousands.” He admonished himself: “Paint pictures in private houses—also, by the way side—in Porter saloons, Black smith shops—shoe shops where ever character can be found …” When die-hards who dared not disagree with European taste objected to what they still considered the meanness of his subject matter, Mount jotted in his journal, “Never paint for the few, but the many”; and reassured himself by stating, “Painting of familiar subjects has the advantage over writing by addressing itself to those who cannot read or write of any nation whatever. It is not necessary for one to be gifted in languages to understand a painting, if the story is well told.”

He told his stories so well that no less than ten of his paintings were eventually engraved for an international market—with such success that his portrait was brought out on the Continent so Europeans, as well as Americans, could know what the painter looked like. But these publications, which appealed abroad not to connoisseurs but to simple people, did not imply any relaxing on the Continent of esthetic disdain for genre. In France, for instance, the great gifts of the most admired figure painters had not yet turned to views of contemporary French life: with Ingres, the Parisian artists continued to delineate classical nudes; with Delacroix, half-imaginary Arabs.

Once he had hit his stride, Mount immersed himself increasingly in what was familiar, domestic, his own, narrowing his life down into an ever more exclusive love affair with one small corner of the earth. His visits to New York City, that artistic center only a Jew hours away by sailboat down the Sound, became fewer and fewer. Although he sometimes still painted as far as eight miles away from home, at Port Jefferson, he came to find most of his subjects in Stony Krook, and the two hills between it and East Setauket. The people in his pictures were his neighbors, and the barns he painted were those which shaded him as he sat sketching by familiar roadsides. When, some years before his death in 1868, ill health threatened to impede his rambles, he designed and had built his “portable studio,” a sky-lighted, covered wagon with a glass wall that, as the fat horses doxed down familiar lanes, kept the painter with his mustaches and shoulder-length black hair as much as always in the center of the local scene.

That ladies had tried to turn his romance with the village into something more personal is revealed by the following verses, slipped one day under his door:

dear Mr mount these lines i write to you that you may know theres some around within this town thats fell in love with you now dont you think its rather hard for girls to fall in love When you do not that love return i think it very hard

dear Mr mount now pray do tell what you intent to do , for really it is not worth while to love and all in vain if you intend to still remain in single blessedness do not keep me in suspense but tell me so at once

for i am quite inclined to think that you intend to live Alone without a Single guide to pasify your mind

The lady could not have been more correct; no man ever avoided all exterior guides more determinedly than the bachelor artist. Here is his description of himself: I endeavor to mind my own business and pay what I owe. I am pleased when a gentleman pays me for a picture without lecturing me about what I shall do with my money. I desire to take all the comfort I can in this world, believing thereby that I shall be happy in the next. I do not believe in association, but to live free and not be in shackles. I often realize much comfort in a good loud laugh, and when such fits come-over me, I dislike to be told by some cold blooded byestander to stop, lest I should disturb some pious neighbor. … I never make it a practice when in an artist’s studio to turn around a canvas or picture without permission. I never speak highly of an old master [in a collector’s house] unless I see the servant advancing with some choice wine and refreshments and, furthermore, I never ask any man where he eats and sleeps.

His friends mourned that he was “insensible to the ordinary arts of success and progress in life.” Although he always had more orders than he could fill, he painted on his genre with slow care and only when he was in the mood. When he had a need for money, he dashed off what he did not take seriously, a portrait; but on the whole he preferred to throw himself into “a fishing attitude.” To objectors he explained that there is a time to think and a time to labor.

Like many another good Yankee, Mount was an inventor, his favorite creations being a sailboat shaped like a saucer, which he insisted could outsail all skinny monstrosities of ordinary design, and a patented violin. He claimed that his “Yankee Fiddle or Cradle of Harmony,” being as mellow as antique instruments, was in fact superior to them because it could be manufactured from fewer parts. With “an ordinary door key” he played on his fiddle his own composition, “Babes in the Wood,” so effectively that he “seldom failed to bring a tear into the eyes of his listeners.” He found his other homemade instrument, a tin whistle of personal design, useful for leading the local urchins in dances down the street.

Painting, too, was for Mount a series of inventions. He considered that his apprenticeship in a sign painter’s shop had been the perfect artistic education, for it gave him the tools of craft without dictating how he should use them. With considerable studying of books and a little looking at pictures, but mostly through the hard labor of personal experimentation, he worked out his own advanced techniques to serve his own advancing needs.

As much as is possible for an ambitious artist who is not a fool, Mount went his own way. He picked up hints from many places without being noticeably swayed by the personality and practice of any other
creator. Thus, the resemblances that can be found between his work and Wilkie’s or that of various Dutch genre painters are mostly coincidences sparked by similarities of intention: in all cases the differences are greater. Mount’s closest artistic friend was his brother Shepard Alonzo, who seemed almost part of his being. Actually part of his being was a more celebrated confidant, the painter Rembrandt, who, so Mount insisted, spoke to him at spiritualist séances and who dictated to him an essay on art that expressed, not surprisingly, exactly Mount’s own views. The dead Dutchman guided his hand in a drawing signed “Rembrandt, 1854.”

Although Mount painted primarily his own local countryside, his pictures, which were distributed in innumerable engravings as well as in the original, spoke powerfully to his compatriots, for Long Island was a microcosm of the long-settled American countryside. Some of his best canvases— Eel Spearing is an example—were commissioned “to call up early associations” by farm boys turned successful New York merchants. The United States was still in essence a rural land. To its citizens, Mount’s compositions carried detailed implications that are lost on the modern viewer. Thus a paragrapher wrote of the listening Negro in The Power of Music :

“A brown jug and axe standing near, inform us that he has been to dinner, after chopping all the morning, filled his jug with ‘blackstrap’ or a mixture of vinegar, water, molasses, and ginger, … and was about to resume his labor for the afternoon, when he was arrested by the notes of the violin. He has got his ‘stent’ for the day, but he thinks he can listen a little longer, work all the harder and get through before sunset.” Accumulations of such meanings made Mount’s compositions seem to some of his contemporaries too broadly humorous, a problem that does not bother us, now that so many of the specific storytelling references no longer impinge.

We can see Mount’s pictures more directly as works of art. We can recognize the extraordinary delicacy, restraint, and gentleness of his talent. This comes through a technique that is far from sophisticated—having, indeed, many resemblances to the work of those other, less able, self-taught artists who are called American primitives. Where, in portraying a distant barnyard, a sophisticated painter of the time would indicate fowl with such indistinct touches of color as the eye would actually see at that distance, Mount drew individual turkeys and chickens with almost microscopic accuracy. Yet his pictures are rarely cluttered, for all is usually subordinated to a single strong design, a single strong emotion.

In his earlier work, the effect is achieved mostly by drawing—the color, although bright and agreeable, being added episodically to already thought-out forms. Later, he experimented with color for its own sake, trying to achieve a single tone throughout a picture and, more specifically, the effect of bright sunlight that was fascinating artists on both sides of the ocean and would not be painted with true success until the emergence of the Impressionists. Mount’s experiments turned out unevenly: some of them were pitiful failures, others were amazingly successful for so naïve an artist engaged in so technically arduous a quest.

All in all, Mount’s pictures are more esthetically effective than a serious-minded art student would tell you they have any right to be. They are true works of art, for the most basic of reasons: because they were deeply and sincerely felt. That in the great parade of world-wide cultural evolution they occupied an advanced place was also due to Mount’s simple honesty, his determination to paint what he loved rather than what esthetic fashion dictated. As the nineteenth century advanced, other, greater artists fell into step with the innocent American painter. The joy in the simple facts of a contemporary world which Mount had so long before expressed became at last the dominant psychological note in the work of those masters, the French Impressionists.

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