- Historic Sites
Painter To The People
In the rural scenes and native landscapes of William Sidney Mount a naive young America saw itself reflected to the life
August 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 5
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.