William Sidney Mount
(Setauket, New York, 1807 - 1868, Setauket, New York)
William Sidney Mount was one of the most successful American painters of the mid-nineteenth century. He was widely recognized by critics, art collectors and the public as an influential figure in the world of art during the 1830s and 1840s. His works were sought after by important collectors of American painting, and by publishers who reproduced them through engraving and lithography, thus giving the artist and his work wider exposure within the general cultures of both the United States and Europe.
Mount was born in the eastern Long Island town of Setauket, New York; his parents were farmers who also ran a store and tavern in the town. Mount’s father Thomas died suddenly in the fall of 1814, and William was relocated to his maternal grandfather’s home in Stony Brook. For a time, young William also lived in New York City with his uncle, Micah Hawkins, and eventually relocated back to New York City to work when his elder brother, Henry, established a sign and ornamental painting business.
While apprenticed to his brother, Mount began to explore the fine arts establishment of exhibitions and academies that existed in early nineteenth-century New York. It was at the American Academy of the Fine Arts exhibition in 1825 that Mount first saw portraits by American painters, as well as traditional history paintings by European artists, including examples by the American ex-patriot in London, Benjamin West (1738-1820), and his students. This exposure prompted Mount’s attempts to create paintings in the Grand Manner of West and students such as John Vanderlyn (1775-1852) and Washington Allston (1779-1843). (1)
Although Mount was encouraged by collectors and patrons throughout his career to study in Europe as other successful American painters had done, Mount chose never to do so, but began educating himself while still apprenticed to his brother Henry in the sign shop. As a part of this self-directed study, he utilized a collection of engravings by William Hogarth that belonged to his brother’s partner in the sign painting business, William Inslee. In the late 1820s he initially tried his hand at history painting, but these works did not sell and thus he turned to painting portraits in order to earn his living as an artist. (2)
As a portrait painter, Mount greatly admired the work of George Loring Elliott (1812-1868), who was one of the finest portraitists of the early nineteenth century. Elliott’s meticulous realism and sensitivity to his sitters inspired and had a lasting impact on Mount’s style; he also briefly attended the National Academy of Design under artist Henry Inman (1801-1846) beginning in 1827.
In 1830, Mount achieved his first critical success with the exhibition of a genre painting titled "Rustic Dance After a Sleigh Ride", which was exhibited at the National Academy of Design. Increasingly in the early 1830s he found buyers for his genre scenes, which decreased his reliance on portraiture as a means of financial support. Like all his genre subjects, the "Rustic Dance"… conveyed the sense of locale and the rural character of Long Island where Mount had spent his early childhood, and where he continued to live off and on as his career progressed.
It was primarily through Mount’s success as a painter of scenes of everyday life (or genre subjects) that this theme initially found a large audience in the United States in the nineteenth century. While European genre works by the seventeenth-century Dutch artists, for example, were reproduced through popular engravings and would have been known to him, Mount was also inspired by works of more contemporary painters like the Scotsman David Wilkie (1785-1841). However, his emphasis on everyday subjects, along with the realist style in which they were painted, was prompted perhaps more directly by societal elements outside of the world of art.
In the years prior to the Civil War, American society shifted swiftly and dramatically away from the agrarian-based economy of the eighteenth century, and toward commercial wealth concentrated in the cities. This was particularly true with regard to the political and financial power bases that molded the course of United States history. The election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, and the populist tide which greeted his Presidency, caused a retrenchment in the elitist financial circles that had guided the country’s economy and its government. Inevitably, Mount’s subjects reflected these changes through an interest in “the common man” and the rise of the middle-class as an audience for fine art. Modern scholars note that, “morality, reformism and middle-class yearnings for social and cultural homogeneity are fundamental to the work of William Sidney Mount. “ (3)
Mount’s 1836 composition "Bargaining for a Horse", exhibited at the National Academy of Design in that year, attracted the admiration of both critics and collectors who had begun to take a new interest in assembling collections of American art. Luman Reed (1784-1836), who owned "Bargaining for a Horse", exemplified the new patrons of Mount’s work. A wealthy, self-made businessman, Reed purchased the work of Americans in addition to European masters for patriotic reasons. These “new men,” successful entrepreneurs and commercial investors, appreciated the roots of Mount’s subjects in rustic and rural environments, which they believed embodied the integrity and democratic equality of the American society. They were, “in a sense most vulnerable to the dilemmas the [Mount’s] pictures represent: getting bested in a bargain, being swayed by political rhetoric and losing one’s investment.” (4) Thus Mount tapped into a current in American culture that allowed his rural subjects to serve as a metaphor for the country’s democratic and nationalist traditions.
Mount wrote in 1861 “It is not necessary for one to be gifted in languages to understand a painting if the story is well told. It speaks all languages—is understood by the illiterate and enjoyed still more by the learned.” This simple narrative quality is eminently evident in "Any Fish Today?" which conveys the attributes that appealed most directly to the ruling class in nineteenth-century America and personified them in the form of a bright, keen youth.
Although he continued to be a successful painter up until his death in 1868, by then his work was superseded in genre painting by that of younger artists such as Eastman Johnson. Indeed genre subjects in general never found the same acceptance or popularity in the later nineteenth century, rapidly being overtaken by landscape subjects in the favor of American critics and the public
(1) Mount’s biography is summarized in William Sidney Mount: Painter of American Life, Deborah J. Johnson, ed., (New York: The American Federation of the Arts, 1998).
(2) Alfred Frankenstein, William Sidney Mount (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1975), p. 20. “At that time  I thought of the Galleries of pictures in Europe and I was desirous to become an historical painter. My mind was brimful of the grand style, but too proud to ask my friends to send me to Italy. Yet at the same time I fancied we had materials enough at home to make original painters, so I reconciled myself to my own country with cheerfulness, knowing that nature is as fine here as in any part of the world and painted portraits, as every young painter should do, even if he should make it his profession to be a painter of history, landscapes, animals, or marine pieces— and occasionally I painted a picture.”
(3) William T. Oedel and Todd S. Gernes, “The Painter’s Triumph: William Sidney Mount and the Formation of a Middle-Class Art,” in Reading American Art, Marianne Doezema and Elizabeth Milroy (eds.), New York: Yale University Press, 1998, pp. 128-149.
(4) Elizabeth Johns, “Boys will be Boys,” in William Sidney Mount: Painter of American Life. Deborah J. Johnson, editor, New York: The American Federation for the Arts, 1998, p. 12.
(5) As quoted in William T. Oedel and Todd S. Gernes, “The Painter’s Triumph: William Sidney Mount and the Formation of a Middle-Class Art,” in Reading American Art, Marianne Doezema and Elizabeth Milroy (eds.), New York: Yale University Press, 1998, p. 130.