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WILLIAM SIDNEY MOUNT
(1807-1868)


Though not the first American genre painter, William Sidney Mount was, nevertheless, the foremost 19th century painter to document the daily life of the common man and the founder of a tradition which continued into the 20th century. His naturalistic portraits and narrative scenes, with their psychological perception and democratic treatment of human beings, form fascinating artistic parallels to the musical compositions of Stephen Foster and the poetry of Walt Whitman,
RIGHT AND LEFT by William Sidney Mount (1850)
RIGHT AND LEFT
by William Sidney Mount (1850)

Like the Bard of Democracy, Mount was born on the shores of Long Island in Setauket, on November 26, 1807, and with his four siblings and widowed mother came to settle in Stony Brook, which he made his base of artistic operations after returning from a period of study in New York City. In 1825 Mount apprenticed in his brother's sign painting shop, devoting his leisure to drawing and painting. His first subjects were portraits and literary, theatrical, and Biblical subjects, but in 1830 he painted his first genre picture: THE COUNTRY DANCE. Within two years he was accorded full membership in the National Academy of Design, whose president, inventor and painter Samuel B. Morse, hailed Mount as one of the pioneers of American art.

Pioneer of
American Art

Until his death in 1868, Mount canvassed the Long Island countryside in his portable studio, drawing his subject matter from the rural life of his neighbors, whom he captured in spontaneous moments of dancing, farming, fiddling, reading, conversing, or playing. That music is a frequent metaphor is not surprising for an artist who, himself, played the fiddle, whose uncle Micah composed one of America's first musical comedies and whose brother Robert was a dancing master. "I often ask someone to play while I am sketching him," Mount said, "for it enlivens the subject's face."

That liveliness can be seen in two of his most famous portraits of African-American musicians, THE BANJO PLAYER and THE BONES PLAYER. Like Stephen Foster, Mount used his art to argue with sensitivity for the dignity of the black man. He was the first painter to accord African-Americans a prominent, non-stereotypical place in his canvasses; he depicted them at work, at play, and at song--with a dispassion that bespoke Mount's egalitarian faith that individuals must be accepted for their own worth. Like Foster, too, his paintings seem to inspire, especially in today's harsh world, a nostalgia for a gentler time and a simpler way of life. Their appeal, however, goes beyond the nostalgic. Like his fellow Democrat Walt Whitman, William Sidney Mount's art argues for honesty and inclusion, for the plain-spoken, unapologetic embrace of life in its myriad manifestations.


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