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.
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.
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.
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.
Another work by Mount which focused on music was his painting entitled Catching the Tune, which he completed in 1866. William 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.
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.
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.
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.