Frederick William Elwell. Part 1. The early days.

Self Portrait by Fred Elwell (1933)
Self Portrait by Fred Elwell (1933)

When I look back on the four and half years of doing this blog I see my early entries were quite short but appeared nearly three or four times a week.  Nowadays due to other commitments and my being sucked into the life of artists the blogs are longer and often in multiple parts.  My last three blogs looked at the life of the American genre painter, William Sidney Mount and today I start a multiple-part blog on a home-grown nineteenth century English painter Frederick William Elwell, who many of you, like me, may have up to now, been unheard of.  In a way you have to thank my wife for this look at Frederick Elwell as she persuaded me to go with her to Yorkshire for a big three-day cooking event in Harrogate and I managed to slide out of the culinary arena and visit some small local galleries in this beautiful town, where I came across a book on Frederick William Elwell.

Frederick William Elwell was born at St Mary’s Cottage in the small Yorkshire market town of Beverley in on June 29th 1870.  His father, James Edward Elwell, was a well-known and well-established wood carver who played a prominent role in Beverley society.  In 1900 he was a member of the town council and mayor of Beverley. And when he held the position of Chairman of the Library Committee, he organised the first exhibition of paintings in 1910. The exhibition featured a selection of art which the town had loaned from local collectors.  It also included a large selection of works by his son Fred.

Fred Elwell’s schooling began with his attendance at Beverley Grammar School but in 1878 the education establishment had to close temporarily and Fred’s parents had to decide where their son should next be schooled.  The family were already aware that their eight year old son was talented at drawing and his father trained him in draughtsmanship and so his father decided to look for some scholarly opening which would allow Fred to further train in art and maybe later architecture as well as attain an all-round education.   The decision was made to send Fred to Lincoln to live with his two aunts, and by doing so, it would allow him to attend Lincoln Grammar School and at the same time afford him the chance to enrol in evening art classes at the nearby Lincoln School of Art on Lindum Hill.  Fred’s two aunts were a formidable pair of Victorian ladies.  One was the principal of the Lincoln Training College for Women whilst the other acted as its secretary

Still Life with Fish by Fred Elwell (1897)
Still Life with Fish by Fred Elwell (1897)

Elwell proved to be a talented scholar and although his father wanted his son’s career path to head towards architecture Fred was in love with painting.  He was so good that he was awarded the Gibney Scholarship, named after Rev. J.S.Gibney the canon of Lincoln Cathedral who with others founded then Lincoln School of Art in 1863, and this allowed him to continue on with a three year course in art.  In 1887, aged seventeen, Fred Elwell won the Queen’s bronze medal in the National Art School’s competition for his painting, Still Life with Fish.  This painting by the seventeen year old Elwell shows the dawning of a great artist in the way he depicts different textures in the painting, such as the shiny reflective glass bottle in contrast to the dull matt finish of the red lobster.  On the wall in the background he has depicted fading Delft tiles. The head of the codfish, with its mouth open, is well illuminated against a dark background.  Its body is curved and the head turns to the right whilst its tale disappears into the darkness.  The curve of the fish is, in some way, countered by the dried herrings which hang in front of the tiles with their tales curving towards the left, balancing out the body position of the cod.  Elwell has used the old artist’s trick of depicting depth by incorporating the edge of the marble shelf in the foreground of the painting.  This picture is housed in the East Riding of Yorkshire Council Museum.

  The head of the college at the time of Fred Ewell was Alfred George Webster and he was a great admirer of the French Impressionism movement which had come to being in the early 1860s in Paris and it was Webster who taught the Impressionist technique to his students.  This introduction of Impressionist techniques to students, including Ewell, was strongly opposed by the Royal Academy.

In 1889, at the age of nineteen, Fred Ewell left the Lincoln Art College and followed the path of many aspiring painters of the time and, financed by his father, Fred travelled to Belgium where he enrolled at the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp which had been founded in 1663 by David Teniers the Younger.  Fred Elwell and a fellow student Claude Rivaz shared a city studio on the Rue des Aveugles.   For many this establishment was considered the most important training academy for those artists who wanted to hone their artistic skills and follow classical Academic training.  Many great artists, such as Van Gogh, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Ford Madox Brown at one time studied at this establishment.  It was here that the students would learn more about the great Masters of art and in fact the Academy itself housed many works by the old Masters.  Fred Elwell’s tutor at the Academy was the landscape and portrait painter, Piet Van Havermaert.  Havermaert pressed his students hard and would not suffer any slackers, once telling his students:

“… Always remember that for the money your father pays to keep you here, he could keep four pigs…”

Havermaert was a hard task master and pushed his students to the limit demanding more and more from them.

The Butler takes a Glass of Port by Fred Elwell (1890)
The Butler takes a Glass of Port by Fred Elwell (1890)

Elwell flourished under this strict teaching regime and during his final year at the Academy produced a genre piece which harked back to the typical type of art that was so popular in the Low Countries in the seventeenth century.  It was entitled The Butler takes a Glass of Port.  The title is a play on words, meaning, on one hand, the partaking of a drink but, on the other hand, meaning “stealing” a drink.  The scene is set in a dining room and we see the butler, emerging from the shadows.  He had just finished serving his master and guests at the dining table and has come to arrange the clearance of the plates.  However he has decided to help himself to a small glass of his Master’s port.  Look at the miscreant.  Look how his face is lit on the side by the candlelight.  This use of light was very popular with the Dutch genre painters of the past and Elwell, even at the young age of twenty, managed to master the art of dramatic lighting.  Look at the butler’s expression of anticipation as he pours himself a drink.  His nose has been given a reddish tinge suggesting that he and alcohol were old friends.  It is amusing to note that the painting’s alternative title, another double-entendre, was All Things come to the Man who Waits !  It was at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp that Elwell began to perfect his skill in portraiture and still life through  the influence of the work of 17th century Dutch and Flemish artists.

This Academy was also a stopping off place for art students who headed for the artistic academies of Paris, a route that Fred Elwell and his friend Claude Riaz, followed in 1892.  The two young artist found themselves some rooms in rue de Campagne Première, on the left-bank, in the city’s 14th arrondissement of Montparnasse.  Elwell was fascinated with the French capital and soon built up a large collection of sketches of all that he saw of Paris life.  Elwell enrolled at the Académie Julian and was fortunate to be tutored by a giant among artists, William-Adolphe Bouguereau.  It was whilst study at the Academy that Fred Elwell started his training in life drawing using living models .  He was never given the opportunity to sketch nude men and women whilst studying at Lincoln, probably because of the presence of the cathedral in the city, the Academy thought life classes were somewhat inappropriate.  Out of this training came one of Elwell’s finest early paintings entitled Dolls or Léonie’s Toilet.

Leonie's Toilet by Fred Elwell (1894)
Leonie’s Toilet by Fred Elwell (1894)

Léonie’s Toilet was completed by Elwell in 1894.   Fred Elwell was introduced to the sitter of this painting, Léonie, by Thomas Warrener who was a friend of his from Lincoln, who, like Elwell, had studied at the Lincoln Art College.  Warrener then attended the Slade School of Art before moving to Paris and the Académie Julian where the two friends met up once again.  Léonie was also a model for some of Warrener’s paintings.   To the left of the painting in the foreground is the washbasin, draped over which is the newspaper famed for its gossip, Gil Blas, which leads us to believe Elwell was interested in the comings and goings in French society.  The periodical often serialised French novels as well as being known for its opinionated arts and theatre criticism.  Another hint of Parisian life in the 1890’s is the two Japanese dolls hanging from the mirror. Japonisme was sweeping through Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century.  It was the term used to describe the influence of Japanese art and fashion on Western culture, and was particularly used to refer to Japanese influence on European Art and Impressionism.  This painting’s original title was Dolls, referring to the dolls seen in the work.  Sibylle Cole in her 1980 book, FREDERICK  W. ELWELL, R.A. 1879-1958.  A Monograph with eight selected prints in colour  describes the skill of Elwell in the way he has painted the naked back of Léonie.  She highlighted the way in which he used a wide range of whites and lovely soft edges where she says “the light leaks into the background”.  There is an interesting story behind this work.  Elwell, like all struggling artists, had to part with his beloved depiction of Léonie, giving it to his landlord as payment for his rent.  Fifty years later the artist James Bateman R.A. was walking down Kings Road in Chelsea when he saw the painting of Léonie in an antiques shop.  He bought it and gave it to the seventy year old painter.   Elwell was delighted to have Léonie back with him !

Young Woman Powdering Herself by Georges Seurat (1890)
Young Woman Powdering Herself by Georges Seurat (1890)

The subject, a girl powdering her face, may have come to Elwell after seeing Georges Seurat’s 1890 work, Young Woman Powdering Herself, a painting depicting Seurat’s secret lover, a working-class woman, Madeleine Knobloch.  The painting was exhibited at the Société des Artistes Indépendants in 1892, the year Elwell arrived in the French capital.

Man with a Pipe by Paul Cezanne (1892)
Man with a Pipe by Paul Cezanne (1892)

My final offering in today’s blog could well have derived from a Cezanne painting Elwell may have seen, one which was painted by Cezanne in 1892 entitled Man with a Pipe, a depiction of a peasant relaxing, staring out at us with his pipe in his mouth.  

Old Man with a Pipe by Fred Elwell (1898)
Old Man with a Pipe by Fred Elwell (1898)

Fred Elwell completed a work in 1898 which was entitled Old Man with a Pipe and depicts a gardener, with pipe in mouth, which projects towards us.  It is a somewhat cut-off painting with the man’s right fist which grasps the handle of the rake and his left elbow, almost cut out of the lower part of the composition

 In my next blog I will continue with Elwell’s life story and look at some more of his beautiful works of art.

 Most of the information for this blog was gleaned from the excellent book I bought in Harrogate, Fred Elwell RA – A Life in Art by Wendy Loncaster & Malcolm Shields.  It is a beautiful book and well worth buying.

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William Sidney Mount. Part 3, More of his genre paintings

Caught Napping- (Boys Caught Napping in a Field) by William S Mount (1848)
Caught Napping- (Boys Caught Napping in a Field) by William S Mount (1848)

This is Part 3 of my blog featuring the nineteenth century American genre painter and portraitist, William Sidney Mount.  In my first blog about this great painter I looked at his genre works which featured his great love of music and musicians.  My second blog featured some of his early biblical works and his portraiture and in this last offering I am reverting to his love of genre painting and some of his best known works of art.  In the first part of this trilogy I talked about the “heyday” of genre style paintings from the Low Countries in the seventeenth and eighteenth century.  They often featured taverns and interiors of homes and were often dark and looked at the life of the peasant classes with a degree of sombreness.  Mount’s genre paintings on the other hand, were more light and joyful.

 William Mount had entered the National Academy of Design in New York in 1829 and during his time there his studies incorporated the study of European paintings and engravings as well as the study of classical statuary.  Whilst he was studying at the Academy he was living with his uncle, Micah Hawkins, who was an amateur poet, and owned a tavern and grocery shop in New York.  Micah’s greatest love was the theatre and he would produce plays in which he would combine music and storytelling and the finished opus would have political and national connotations.  His nephew William was influenced by this and the American life theme and social comment  featured in many of his works of art.

 William Mount completed his studies in 1829 and returned home to Long Island where he set about building up a portfolio of paintings which included portraits of relatives and some of the workers on the family farmstead.  In 1832 he was elected to the Academy and for the next thirty-three years exhibited there regularly.   William Mount was very aware of the class structure in his country.  He could see the social gap between the urban citizens and those who worked the land.  Towns expanded and became cities and those who worked and lived in these cities became wealthier than their poor relations that remained in the countryside to work the land.  With financial wealth came cultural wealth and soon the division between the urban dwellers and the country folk became more obvious.

The Sportsman's Last Visit by William S Mount (1835)
The Sportsman’s Last Visit by William S Mount (1835)

The painting by Mount, which best looks at this cultural difference, was one he completed in 1835, entitled The Sportsman’s Last Visit.  In the depiction we see Mount has contrasted the genteel elegance of the city gentleman, dressed immaculately in black, who sits next to the lady and engages her in conversation.  She demurely, but coquettishly, looks away from him supposedly concentrating on a piece of fabric which she has been working on.  There is a slight smile on her lips indicating that she is enjoying the man’s attention. She completely ignores the man whom we see standing on the right hand side. He is scratching his head, perplexed by what he is witnessing.  He is a local country boy.  He has none of the airs and graces of the city gentleman but he cannot understand why the lady should favour the city gentleman over him.  Mount often painted scenes from rural life with loving depictions but in this one he was hinting at things were about to change.  If money was to be made, maybe city life was the way to do it.   On an artistic note I love how Mount has cleverly used the ceiling beams to demonstrate a feeling of depth in the painting.

California News by William S Mount (1850)
California News by William S Mount (1850)

Another of Mount’s painting which recorded changing time, was entitled California News which he completed in 1850.,  This was in the middle of the chaotic California Gold Rush In the picture we see a local man, with the New York Daily Tribune newspaper in his hands, reading aloud about the gold rush in California.  Local people stand around agog with excitement but what is more interesting is the picture above the door which depicts a couple of pigs which is probably a reminder that many who raced across country to make their fortune were simple pig farmers who struggled to eke out a living wage for their family.

 In 1834, William Mount met Luman Reed.   Luman Reed, who was born in 1784, was a farmer’s son from upstate New York.  He made a fortune in the wholesale grocery business in New York City and through his love of paintings, built up one of America’s most important collections of paintings, concentrating on American art of his own time.  He became patrons to such American artists as Asher Durand, Thomas Cole and George Flagg, just to name a few.  Luman Reed liked the works of William Mount and bought two of his paintings, Bargaining for a Horse and The Truant Gamblers (Undutiful Boys).

 

Bargaining for a Horse by William Sidney Mount (1835)
Bargaining for a Horse by William Sidney Mount (1835)

The painting, Bargaining for a Horse, which he completed in 1835, is probably one of the best known and best loved of William Mount’s works of Art.  The original title for the painting was Farmers Bargaining but when the painting was published as an engraving five years later the title was changed to Bargaining for a Horse.  When Luman Reed received the completed painting he was delighted and commented that this was “a new era of the fine arts of the country”.  There was a political connotation to this work by Mount as the phrase “horse trading” referred to a promise of material benefit in return for political support.  Mount’s original title for the painting did not so much allude to that colloquialism but the changed title in 1840 made it more apparent to all those who viewed the work.

 Look at the two men.  There is no eye contact between the seller and the buyer.  Both concentrate on the whittling of the wood almost as if the sale is of little importance.  Maybe the concentration they have given to the wood carving gives them time to think about their next step in the bargaining process.  It is a beautifully composed work which has been skilfully painted.   It is a painting which combines humour, warmth, and razor sharp observation.

 Luman Reed was delighted with his painting and wrote to William Mount in November 1835:

 “…This is a new era of fine arts in this Country, we have native talent and it is coming out as rapidly as is necessary.  Your picture of the ‘Bargain’ is the wonder and delight of everyone that sees it…”

The Truant Gamblers (Undutiful Boys) by William S Mount (1835.)
The Truant Gamblers (Undutiful Boys) by William S Mount (1835.)

A month later Mount wrote to Luman Reed telling him of the other painting he had completed for him.  He wrote:

 “…You will receive with this letter a picture: ‘Undutiful Boys’.   Boys hustling coppers on the barn floor……….My price for the picture ‘Undutiful Boys’ two hundred and twenty dollars.  I hope the picture will meet your approbation…”

 A week later Luman Reed wrote back  to Mount:

 “… I yesterday received your much awaited letter of the 4th Instant with your beautiful Picture of the ‘Undutiful Boys’.  To say that this picture is satisfactory is not enough, and the least I can say is that it pleases me exceedingly.  It is a beautiful specimen of art.   The interior is far superior to any thing of the kind I have seen, it is all good and therefore I need not particularize, the price is perfectly satisfactory and the money is ready for you any day you want it.  I pride myself on having now two of your Pictures and what I consider your best productions and hope yet to have more but it is no more than fair that others should be gratified too and I must wait until you execute some other commissions…”

 In the painting we see a group of young boys who have decided to abandon their farming chores and, instead, decided to spend some time gambling for pennies.  Happy with their decision to forego work, what they do not realise is that the farmer is approaching, pitchfork and switch in his hands and punishment is imminent.  This type of genre painting featuring life on the farm was popular in those days as life was changing from an agrarian one to an industrial one and rural life soon became somewhere to relax and enjoy and for people like Luman Reed who was brought up in the Hudson River town of Coxsackie and later moved to the hustle and bustle of New York City, paintings depicting life on the farm may have brought him fond memories of his childhood days.  For him this painting was a nostalgic one

At the Well by William S Mount
At the Well by William S Mount

In 1837 William Mount left New York City and returned home to Stony Brook and Setauket on Long Island and remained there for the rest of his life with just the odd trips back to New York.  He was content to paint rural scenes and the characters who worked on the farmsteads.   He maintained his portraiture work as this was a good source of income.  Unlike a number of his contemporaries he showed no inclination to travel to Europe to experience artistic life in London, Paris or Rome.  Mount fully captivated the rich European artistic legacy that was imported to the United States. It was through engravings, books and copies of European masterpieces, that Mount received a complete schooling in the academic tradition of art and by doing so became America’s first great genre painter.  He lived quite a sheltered life and unlike his brothers, he never married.

When we look at his works of art we are struck by the amount of detail in them.  Mount loved detail and worked painstakingly slow to ensure no detail was omitted from the finished work and this resulted in a small number of completed works, believed to be no more than two hundred completed in the thirty years that he painted.

The Raffle (Raffling for the Goose) by William S Mount (1837)
The Raffle (Raffling for the Goose) by William S Mount (1837)

My last featured painting is one of my favourites.  It is entitled The Raffle (Raffling the Goose) which William Mount completed in 1837 and is now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  In this work, like a number of his other paintings Mount liked to highlight the social and political issues of the time.  Before us we see six men gathered around a table eagerly awaiting the result of an impromptu lottery to see who had won the plump goose which lies in front of them.  If you look carefully at the table you will see signs of blood which indicate the bird had recently been killed and plucked.  Such lotteries were common in the rural communities of Long Island around this time.  The year 1837 was a year of hardship for Americans.  The Panic of 1837, as it was known, was the financial crisis in the United States that touched off a major recession that lasted until the mid-1840’s. Profits, prices and wages went down while unemployment went up.  Mount alluded to food shortages during this hard time in this painting and what people had to do to survive and put food on the family table.  Mount worked on the painting through the winter of 1836 and completed it early in 1837.  Mount exhibited the painting that year at the National Academy of Design Spring Exhibition.

In the first part of this William S Mount trilogy I talked about his inventive nature and how he had invented a violin/fiddle which produced a larger volume of noise.  In about 1860 Mount designed a portable studio and home on wheels which was drawn by horses. It afforded him the opportunity to drive himself around the area and paint en plein air.   He spent much time during his last years in this unique conveyance, but sadly, due to ill health, his painting days were almost over.

The Grave of William Sidney Mount, Caroline Church of Brookhaven, East Setauket, New York.
The Grave of William Sidney Mount, Caroline Church of Brookhaven, East Setauket, New York.

William Sidney Mount died on November 19th 1868, at Setauket and is buried in the Presbyterian Church Cemetery.

William Sydney Mount House, Stony Brook, NY
William Sydney Mount House, Stony Brook, NY

His home and studio, now known as The William Sidney Mount House is one of America’s National Treasures.   One of the local elementary schools in The Three Village Central School District, a district in Long Island so named from the older, original “Three Villages” of Setauket, Stony Brook and Old Field, is named after the artist.

There were so many paintings I could have included but these are just a few of my favourites.  Besides the usual internet sources I gleaned a lot of my information from an old book I just bought entitled William Sidney Mount by Alfred Frankenstein.  The William Sidney Mount House at Stony Brook, Long Island houses numerous works of art by William Sidney Mount and I would be interested to hear from anybody who has visited the museum.

William Sidney Mount. Part 2 – The Portraitist, and some of his early historical works

Self portrait by William S Mount (1832)
Self portrait by William S Mount (1832)

In my last blog I looked at the early life of William Sidney Mount, hailed as the first American genre artist.  I looked at his love for music and how he depicted song and dance in his paintings.  Today I want to carry on with his life story and take a look at his early works and his portraiture.

 William had been working for his brother, Henry Smith Mount, at his sign writing business in Setauket and enjoyed it.  At first he found the work interesting and challenging but later found the painting of signs somewhat restrictive.  He gave up working for his brother and moved to New York to live with his uncle Micah Hawkins, who operated a tavern and grocery store in New York City.  His uncle was also a composer, playwright, and poet.  Micah combined music and storytelling into his theatrical productions which often delved into what was happening in politics and much of these ideas were to influence his nephew and his paintings.

  It was also around this time that William Mount visited his first art gallery, the American Academy in New York and in 1826 he enrolled at the newly opened National Academy of Design, an artistic establishment founded by a number of young painters such as Asher Durand, Thomas Cole, and Samuel Morse.  In those early years William Mount’s art was all about portraits and historical scenes.  William remained at the Academy for a year before returning home.

Saul and the Witch of Endor by William S. Mount (1828)
Saul and the Witch of Endor by William S. Mount (1828)

One of his early works was entitled Saul and the Witch of Endor, which he completed in 1828 and can now be found in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.   The painting depicts a passage from the Old Testament book of Samuel which tells of Saul and his battle with the Philistines.

 “… The Philistines assembled and came and set up camp at Shunem, while Saul gathered all Israel and set up camp at Gilboa. When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart.  He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets.  Saul then said to his attendants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her.

‘There is one in Endor,’ they said…”

 Saul seeks help from the oracle from Endor prior to him going into battle with the Philistines.  She summons the spirit of the prophet Samuel so that Saul could ask for his guidance.  In the painting we see Saul and his three companions cower in fear as the ghostly apparition approaches them.

Christ Raising the Daughter of Jairus by William S Mount (1828)
Christ Raising the Daughter of Jairus by William S Mount (1828)

In that same year he produced another biblical work based on Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 9:23-26).  It was entitled Raising of Jairus’ Daughter.  The subject of this biblical work had been depicted many times before by great artists such as Veronese.  The bible relates the story:

“…When Jesus entered the synagogue leader’s house and saw the noisy crowd and people playing pipes, he said, “Go away. The girl is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him   After the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took the girl by the hand, and she got up.   News of this spread through all that region…”

William’s brother Henry was so impressed with the finished painting that he persuaded his brother to submit it at the annual National Academy exhibition.  It was well praised by the Academy professors.  William was now living at his brother’s place on Nassau Street, Lower Manhatten and had a studio in the attic.  He enjoyed painting historical and biblical works but the sales of which were not bringing in enough money so he reverted to portraiture which was always a guaranteed way of raising income.

Ruth Hawkins Mount Seabury and Son Charles Edward by William S Mount (1828)
Ruth Hawkins Mount Seabury and Son Charles Edward by William S Mount (1828)

One of his early works of portraiture was a family portrait entitled Ruth Hawkins Mount Seabury and Son Charles Edward,  which he completed in 1828.  It depicts his nineteen year old sister Ruth Hawkins Mount and her infant son Charles Edward Seabury, the first of her seven children.

Ruth Mount Seabury by William S Mount (1831)
Ruth Mount Seabury by William S Mount (1831)

William Mount completed a portrait of his sister, Ruth in 1831.

I suppose if you are looking for people to sit for you for a portrait, you turn firstly to your family and in 1828 he completed a portrait of his eldest brother, and his former employer, Henry Smith Mount.

Portrait of Henry Smith Mount by William S Mount (1831)
Portrait of Henry Smith Mount by William S Mount (1831)

Three years later, in 1831, Henry Smith Mount was the subject of another of his younger brother’s portraits.  This portrait of his eldest brother (by five years) is a masterful portrait.  He has depicted his brother as a man of great self-confidence, a man who comes across as a thoughtful academic and yet, a man who by his facial expression, seems stern and somewhat menacing, as he stares out at us, lost in his own thoughts.

Henry Smith Mount on his deathbed by William S Mount (1841)
Henry Smith Mount on his deathbed by William S Mount (1841)

Thirteen years on he completed another depiction of his brother, Henry.  The circumstances surrounding this watercolour were much sadder as this was completed in January 1841 and the setting was Henry’s deathbed.  Henry was just thirty nine years of age.

Shepherd Alonzo Mount by William S Mount (1847)
Shepherd Alonzo Mount by William S Mount (1847)

In 1847 William Mount painted a portrait of his other brother, Shepherd Alonzo Mount.

Portrait of Jedediah Williamson by William S Mount (c. 1837)
Portrait of Jedediah Williamson by William S Mount (c. 1837)

The next example of William Mount’s portraiture is one he completed in 1837 and was entitled Portrait of Jedediah Williamson.  It is a depiction of a ten year old boy commissioned by his family.  It is a full frontal depiction of the young lad and Mount has carefully and with great skill portrayed the boy’s facial features.  It is a very peaceful depiction of the boy as he looks out into the distance.  The family would have been very pleased to have received the work from Mount and it is recorded that they paid him fifteen dollars for the painting.  However there is a sad twist to this portrayal as this is a “mourning painting” or as Mount referred to them, “a painting after death”.  The boy had died and this portrait was in honour of him and may have given the family a modicum of comfort during the sadness of their great loss.  These “mourning paintings” were very popular at the time and artists found they could achieve a steady income from paintings which, for relatives, served as a reminder of a loved one who had passed away. One should remember that between 1861 and 1865 over 350,000 Americans died during the American Civil War, the families of many just had an artist’s painting to remind them of their lost son or daughter.

Portrait of Reuben Merrill by William S Mount (1832)
Portrait of Reuben Merrill by William S Mount (1832)

Another interesting portrait by William Mount was one entitled Portrait of Reuben Merrill.  It was one of Mount’s early works which he completed in 1832.  The question, which is yet to be resolved, is who is Reuben?  Some believe he was a gardener whilst others say he was a simple field worker on the farm owned by William’s sister, Ruth and her husband, Charles Saltonstall Seabury.  The fact that he identity of the sitter used by Mount is somewhat of a mystery is not uncommon as a number of the sitters in Mount’s portraits are unknown.  There is warmth about how Mount has depicted this man.  His face is weather beaten from all the outside work but he has compassionate eyes, which leads us to believe that although he was just a poor and simple labourer, there was some sort of warm connection between him and the artist which probably testifies to the fact that he was a hard worker and appreciated by his employers.

Portrait of Midshipman Seabury by William S Mount (1868)
Portrait of Midshipman Seabury by William S Mount (1868)

My last example of Mount’s portraiture was also thought to have been his last artistic work.  It was completed in September 1868, less than two months before Mount’s death, and was a pencil sketch of his nineteen year old nephew Samuel Seabury.  Samuel was one of seven children.  His mother was Ruth Hawkins Mount Seabury, William Sidney Mount’s younger sister, and his father was Charles Saltonhall Seabury.   At the time of the portrait, Samuel Seabury was a midshipman in the navy, and the ship in the left hand background is a reminder of his profession.

In my next blog I will take my final look at William Sidney Mount and his work and I will feature some of his excellent non-musical genre work.

William Sidney Mount. Part 1. The Music Man

William Sidney Mount
William Sidney Mount

Genre art is defined as the pictorial representation of scenes or events from everyday life.  They often depict settings such as a marketplace or tavern or simply everyday occurrences in houses or in the street.  They can be either realistic depictions or imagined ones which may have been romanticised by the artist.  These works of art have one or more persons in the depiction carrying on with their everyday life notwithstanding how unglamorous it may be.  When one thinks of genre paintings one immediately thinks of the seventeenth century art of the Low Countries, the art of the Golden Age, and of the art of Gerard Dou, Gerard te Borch, Pieter de Hooch and Jan Steen just to name a few.  I love this type of art and today I am focusing on another artist who was renowned for his genre works of art.  He however was not from Europe but from America.  He was the nineteenth century American genre artist and portraitist, often looked upon as one of the first American genre painter, the great William S. Mount.  In this blog, I will look at his early life, ponder over his connection with music and showcase some of his works which were influenced by his love of music.

William Sidney Mount was born on November 26th 1807 in Setauket , a small town on the northern side of Long Island, New York. He was the son of Thomas Shepherd Mount and Julia Ann Hawkins.  He was the fourth of five children with three older brothers, Henry Smith Mount, Shepherd Alonzo Mount and Robert Nelson Mount and a younger sister, Ruth Hawkins Mount.  His maternal grandfather was Jonas Hawkins, an American Patriot and a member of the notorious Culper Spy Ring during the American Revolution, whose task it was to send messages to General Washington about the activities of the British Army in New York City which was the British headquarters and base of operations.

Portrait of William Sydney Mount by Charles Loring Elliott. (1848)
Portrait of William Sydney Mount by Charles Loring Elliott. (1848)

William recalled those very early traumatic days as an infant, presumably told to him by his relatives.  According to him he was literally left for dead.  He wrote:

“…The first and most remarkable event of my life occurred when I was about 6 or 7 months old.  I was taken from my Mother (she being very sick) to be brought up by hand – I soon declined for want of proper or abundant nourishment and after several days [was] considered dead by my kind nurse and tenderly laid away as so.  My Father’ sister being sent for to make further arrangements concerning me observed signs of life and immediately commenced nourishing me…”

Due to his mother’s poor health his grandmother played an important role in his upbringing.  In October 1814, a month before William’s seventh birthday, his father died and his mother took him and his four siblings to live on the Stony Brook farmstead owned by her family.  For the next ten years William and his brothers worked on the farm.  It was whilst living at the farmstead that, through his uncle, Micah Hawkins, who had a passion for music and the theatre that William and his siblings developed a love for music, especially the playing of the fiddle which William would often play at barn dances.

Cradle of Harmony
Cradle of Harmony

Barn dances were very popular with the farming communities but for them to be a success they needed a good fiddler and one such expert was young William Mount.  Barn dances were raucous and merry events and it could be difficult to hear the lone fiddler amongst the “whooping and hollering” of the dancers and so William decided to invent and instrument which could supply loud music.   In 1852 he designed a violin with a hollow back to make it sound louder than a normal violin and he patented it and called it The Cradle of  Harmony.

 However it was his younger brother Robert, the only one of the family who was not attracted to art who would turn out to be the accomplished musician and dance instructor.  Music however played a part in William Mount’s art as many of his paintings were a blend of music and art.

William Mount worked on the family farm at Stony Brook until 1824, when, at the age of seventeen, he was apprenticed to his older brother Henry, who was a sign and ornamental painter in New York City. It was also around this time that his other brother, Shepherd, became a fellow apprentice. From these small artistic beginnings, all three brothers soon became painters. William, who had taken up drawing seriously when he was eighteen years old studied for a short time with the leading American portraitist of the time, Henry Inman.  However William’s studies with Inman came to an end due to lack of tuition money and his own poor health and he returned home to Setauket in 1827.

Dancing on the Barn Floor by William S Mount (1831)
Dancing on the Barn Floor by William S Mount (1831)

The painting entitled Dancing on the Barn Floor, which he completed in 1831, was one of Mount’s earliest successes and combines his love of music with his talent as an artist.  The painting is a perfect example of how his studies in perspective influenced him. The converging lines at the centre of the painting are textbook examples of how students were taught to organize their canvases.  The painting is housed in the Long Island Museum of American Art, located in Stony Brook, New York.

Catching the Tune by William Sidney Mount (1866)
Catching the Tune by William Sidney Mount (1866)

Another work by Mount which focused on music was his painting entitled Catching the Tune, which he completed in 1866William wrote in his diary that the tune the musician was playing in this painting was Possum Up a Gum Tree, a title still known today and attached to more than one distinct tune in the South and Midwest.  All three men as well as the women onlookers are white. However, what is interesting is that a a study sketch that Mount did for this painting depicts the musicians’ faces with a subtle increase in African features.

The Banjo Player by William S Mount (1856)
The Banjo Player by William S Mount (1856)

Probably two of his most famous works of art are a combination of portraiture and genre painting.   He completed both in 1856 featuring African American musicians.  They were entitled The Bone Player and The Banjo Player and both had been commissioned by William Schaus.  Schaus was the New York city agent for the European firm of the printers Goupil & Company, who had asked for two pictures of African-American musicians, to be lithographed for the European market.   One should remember that the time Mount completed these works was just five years before the outbreak of the American Civil War and feelings regarding slavery was about to split the country.  Mount was not known as an abolitionist but he was an artist who was in tune with the feelings of the African-American folk and his art always depicted the black man with dignity and sensitivity notwithstanding whether they were portrayed at work or at play.  His art made it very clear that everybody, black and white, should be judged for their own worth and not by the colour of their skin.  There was a simplicity about the two portraits.  It was all about enjoyment.

The Bone Player by William Mount (1856)
The Bone Player by William Mount (1856)

By entitling the painting The Bone Player, Mount points out that the work of art is all about the musical skill of the man and not the man himself.   The two sets of bones, one in each hand, are made of wood or bone and are clicked together.  This instrument has always been connected with African-American minstrels, and was easily recognised as such by folks on both sides of the Atlantic.  There was a good market in Europe for this type of work with all its mystic and exoticism.  In some ways Mount’s depiction of the African-American in both portraits was neutral and he left it up to the purchaser of the works how they wanted to interpret what they saw in the painting and this neutrality made the works appealing to Americans from both the North and the South.

Dance of the Haymakers by William S Mount (1845)
Dance of the Haymakers by William S Mount (1845)

A painting by William S Mount which brings out the joy of barn dancing is one he completed in 1845, entitled Dance of the Haymakers.  It is said that Mount was inspired to paint this scene when he heard the song Shep Jones’ Hornpipe, composed by his neighbour Shep Jones who can be seen depicted in the painting as the fiddler.

The description of the work was outlined in a letter from William Mount to William Schaus of Goupil, Vibert & Company written on April 16th 1849.  Mount wrote:

“…[The depiction] represents a barnfloor scene, opening upon a fiddler, two Long Islanders, dancing with great energy, and an old man listening with his fancy evidently touched by the performance at the right, and on the out side of the barn, a negro boy is adding to the excitement and noise by drumming on the door, evidently delighted with the ‘concord of sweet music’ which he thinks he produces.  The noise of the clog hoppers, the music, and the loud laughter of the lookers on, is enough to arouse the village Parson.  The last and not least, a cat watching a dog from ma hollow beneath the door sill, is marvellous for its life and finish, quite equal to the celebrated master pieces of the kind in the Dutch school…

In my next blog I will carry on the story of William S Mount’s life and look at his wonderful portraiture and some more of his genre paintings.