- 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
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.