- 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
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.