Painter To The People

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“ 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.