The Racially Diverse Paintings of a 19th-Century American Artist
William Sidney Mount.
William Sidney Mount, one of America’s finest 19th-century genre, or scene, painters, created glorious portraits of Black and multiracial people, among others. In politics, he was a Jacksonian Democrat, who favored states’ rights to choose slavery as America’s borders expanded westward. Later on, he would vote against Lincoln. And yet, unlike most White artists of the mid-1800s, who portrayed Black people in demeaning caricatures, Mount painted his subjects with humanity, realism, and psychological depth. Before the Civil War, photography wasn’t common and Black individuals were rarely portrayed in fine art. Mount’s paintings are extremely valuable to the historical record both because of their rarity and their quality. Out of several hundred paintings Mount made in his lifetime, his dozen works that feature Black and multiracial individuals are among his best.
Mount lived his whole life on the rural North Shore of Long Island, N.Y., aside from several years in Manhattan. He never married. From the local farming homesteads, held by his siblings, extended family, and their neighbors, he chose his models, both Black and White. He was also a fiddler, and he liked to illustrate country folk, both Black and White, making music. Due to New York’s partial manumission acts beginning in 1799 and the state’s abolition of slavery in 1827, all Mount’s Black models were free.
Wealthy, White, urban, East Coast businessmen, such as Henry Breevort Jr., Edward L. Carey, Gouverneur Kemble, and Luman Reed purchased Mount’s rural scenes of the 1830s and 1840s. “Yankee” themed artwork became popular in America during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, from 1829 to 1837, which Jackson billed as the “era of the common man.” Mount’s farming scenes won him accolades at the National Academy of Design exhibitions in Manhattan. Racial diversity added to the marketability of such paintings, but with one caveat—that Black and White individuals be segregated within the illustration. As art historian Elizabeth Johns points out, White American buyers were not interested in artwork that challenged the existing segregated and hierarchical social order.
In the 1850s, Mount created three large portraits of Black and multiracial musicians for an entirely different clientele: European buyers of lithographic prints. Mount’s New York agent for the Paris-based international art dealership, Goupil, Vibert & Co. (later Goupil and Co.), commissioned paintings that put Black people front and center in the composition. Europeans were apparently more open-minded about portraying Black people than were their American counterparts.
This portfolio is adapted from The Art of William Sidney Mount: Long Island People of Color on Canvas , The History Press, 2022, $23.99
The Mount House. Artist Mount spent the bulk of his life on Long Island, N.Y., which was very rural at the time. He painted this image of his home in 1854. Eel Spearing at Setauket (1845) is one of the few works of fine art from early or mid-19th century America that features a Black woman. As such, it was considered controversial among the affluent, White audience in New York who saw the painting exhibited at the National Academy of Design. Several art critics found the subject matter of the “negress” to be in poor taste for a painting on public view. Today the work is considered to be one of the best of its era in America. The white, two-story building in the background of the scene with its accompanying farm is St. George’s Manor on Strong’s Neck in Setauket, Long Island. Manhattan attorney George Washington Strong (1783-1855), who commissioned the work, had grown up at St. George’s; the newly built manor house shown here belonged to one of his older brothers, the Honorable Selah Brewster Strong I, a congressman (1792-1872). A childhood memory of the Strongs may have inspired the painting’s subject matter, though Mount himself had fond recollections of spearfishing as a boy with an elderly, enslaved Black man named Hector. Spearfishing along the protected waters of Strong’s Neck was a common activity in Mount’s time, as it had been for centuries among the native Setalcotts. Selah Brewster Strong’s 10-year-old son Judd (Thomas Shepard Strong II, 1834-1909) served as the model for the boy in the skiff. No documentation exists to tell us the name of the eel-spearing woman. She may have been Rachael Youngs Tobias (1805-1866), who was born into slavery at St. George’s Manor. Another possibility is that she was Rachel Brewster (1799-c. 1880), a woman of Black and Native American ancestry who grew up in Setauket’s Brewster House, shown in Mount’s painting Long Island Farmhouses (1862-1863). Mount was closely affiliated with both the Strong and Brewster families and would have known each of these women from childhood years and beyond. Mount painted Rustic Dance After a Sleigh Ride (1830) when he was only 23 years old. This simple scene of couples dancing in a crowded inn earned Mount his first sale and his first award in an art exhibition at New York’s National Academy of Design, where he had studied. Mount enjoyed the satiric engravings of British artist William Hogarth, among others, who illustrated comic characters and storylines. The story here, a romantic vignette, involves a man in an olive green waistcoat and trousers, who looks on in shock as the woman in a white gown steps out onto the dance floor with another man. Compared to Mount’s later paintings, his figures, both Black and White, are clumsily rendered and their faces have a sameness to them. His Black fiddler resembles the stereotypical Black caricatures in 19th- century cartoons. The other two Black figures in the composition, the coachman in the red cap and the man holding the bellows, are equally stereotypical with their childlike, grinning faces. Seventeen years later, Mount’s skills in realistic portraiture had progressed to an extraordinary degree when he painted a biracial fiddler in Right and Left (1847). The room shown in Rustic Dance is believed to be the main room in the Hawkins-Mount House in Stony Brook (c. 1725, enlarged 1757), where Mount lived from the age of six into his teenage years, and for periods afterward. Mount recalled a talented Black fiddler named Anthony Hannibal Clapp (1749-1816) he had known as a child. Clapp was possibly Mount’s inspiration for the fiddler in Rustic Dance. Wilhelm (William) Schaus, Mount’s agent for lithographic prints at the firm Goupil, Vibert & Co. liked Mount’s painting of a White fiddler, Just in Tune (1849), and asked Mount to paint a Black fiddler. The result was Mount’s magnificent portrait Right and Left (1850). Subsequently, Schaus asked Mount to paint two more portraits of Black musicians, a banjo player, and a bones player. Mount’s musical portraits are reminiscent of the works of 17th-century Dutch master Frans Hals, whose vivid, expressive figures assumed the same three-quarter length poses. Eloquent and psychologically rich, Right and Left marked a vast departure from the racist caricatures of Black fiddlers shown in newspaper cartoons, and on theatre billboards and sheet music covers during Mount’s time. The fiddler’s attire indicates that the picture is meant to be of a traveling performer. The horseshoe hung on the wall behind him may symbolize the variable luck of a musician’s life. The title of the painting carries a double meaning. Mount’s fiddler is left-handed, and “right and left,” is a square-dance term. To Mount’s annoyance, when this painting was copied as a lithograph, the artist flipped the figure as a mirror image, making the fiddler right-handed. Mount’s model for this portrait may have been Henry (Harry) Brazier (c. 1817-1895), a biracial man who lived in Smithtown and Mastic, Long Island, and was known to play the fiddle.
this article first appeared in American history magazine
Farmers Nooning (1836) brings us to a field during harvest time when a group of young men and boys take a break from their labors. The reclining figure of the Black man looks as though he could be having a good dream. A young, White boy wearing a Scottish-style tam-o’-shanter, playfully tickles his ear with a piece of straw. One of the others in the group sharpens farm tools, preparing for the work still ahead. Art historian Elizabeth Johns suggests that Farmers Nooning conveys an encrypted political message regarding the dangers of abolitionism. The boy’s tam-o’-shanter, she says, symbolizes the English and Scottish antislavery groups that funded American abolitionists. The ear tickling, she says, is a visual representation of an expression popular in pre-Civil War America about “filling the naive listener’s mind with promises.” Another art historian, Deborah Johnson, interprets the Black man as “in a liminal state, suspended between the slumber of slavery and the awakening of emancipation.” The model for the reclining Black man is believed to be Abner Mills of Smithtown, Long Island, who worked on the Mills Pond estate owned by Mount’s distant cousins. One of Abner’s older, half-brothers was Robbin Mills, Mount’s model for The Power of Music. The models for the other figures in Farmers Nooning are likely the sons of Mount’s sister, Ruth Seabury. The cattle-bone clappers in the musician’s hands make fast, clickety sounds similar to the taps of a tap dancer. The jug and glass in The Bone Player (1856) suggest the musician is in a tavern, and the box in which he carries his “bones” suggests he is a traveling performer. His elegant clothes, including his knotted red silk scarf, further indicate that the performer is a minstrel. Nineteenth-century Blackface groups each typically had a bones player (as well as a fiddler, banjo player, and tambourine player). Because of this, some historians view this painting in a racist context; they suggest that William Schaus, Mount’s agent, purposed the subject matter of a bones player to Mount because of the popularity of Blackface groups that performed in tawdry, raucous halls in the Five Points district in lower Manhattan at the time. It is not known how Schaus, a German emigré, and a representative of a Paris-based firm for fine art, learned about bones players. In any case, Mount’s magnificent musician is painted in an ennobling European style, and purchases of this image as a lithograph were mostly overseas in cities such as London and Paris. Mount’s model for The Bone Player was 40-year-old Andrew Brewster (1808–after 1860), a farmhand who worked for Mount’s brother, Robert Nelson Mount. Andrew was born in the Brewster House in Setauket, portrayed in Long Island Farmhouses. He lived there, and in the adjoining house on the property, for most of his life. Please note: This photograph requires additional permission prior to use. If you wish to reproduce this image, please contact Bridgeman Images and we will manage the permission request on your behalf. The Joseph Brewster House, 1665, in Setauket, Long Island, N.Y., was home to six generations of Brewsters, both the White families and the Black families of the same name who worked for them. The colonial “saltbox” house at the foreground of Long Island Farmhouses (1862-63) is now a museum run by the Ward Melville Heritage Organization. In Mount’s time, as this picture shows, two adjoining houses stood on the property, as well as accompanying barns and other structures that were part of a farm of several hundred acres. One of Mount’s brothers, Robert Nelson Mount, a fiddler and dance teacher, married Mary J. Thompson Brewster, and the couple lived in the house in the painting’s background. Mount himself boarded with them on and off, at least twice in his lifetime, and it was in this house where Mount passed away in 1868. Two of the farmhands from this joint property modeled for Mount: George Freeman, The Banjo Player, and Andrew Brewster, The Bone Player. Andrew’s sister, Rachel Brewster, was possibly Mount’s model for the woman in Eel Spearing at Setauket. Dance of the Haymakers (1845) takes us to a joyous celebration in a barn at the end of a harvest day. The two men at the center dance the quick steps of the hornpipe in sync, and possibly in a friendly competition to see who can outdo the other. Mount enjoyed dancing and playing music himself (the fiddle and flute) and his rural life gave him many opportunities to record such gatherings with his pencil and tiny sketchbook he carried in his pocket. In his sketches and paintings, Mount’s dancers and musicians are sometimes Black and sometimes White, and those watching them are sometimes Black and sometimes White. Today it makes for an interesting cultural discussion that both Black and White people appear in Mount’s artworks in interchangeable roles, albeit in separate areas of the compositions. These multiracial scenes suggest that 19th-century society, at least on Long Island, was not as segregated as was once believed. Most of the real-life models in Dance of the Haymakers are well-documented as Stony Brook residents and friends of Mount. The fiddler is Mount’s second cousin Shepard “Shep” Jones; the dancers, left to right, are Tom Briggs and Wesley Ruland; the spectator behind the fiddle is Horace Newton; the man seated on the box is Billy Biggs; and the boy with the flail is Joe Jayne. The people in the loft, peering out of the darkness, could be Mary Brewster and her biracial daughter, Phelena Seabury, who were connected to the household of Mount’s sister and brother-in-law, Ruth and Charles Saltonstall Seabury. Mount dressed his model as a jaunty stagecoach driver. The shiny object that hangs around his neck is a bugle mouthpiece; coachmen used bugles as drivers use car horns today. The striped cap may also signify the dress of a coachman. The figure of The Banjo Player (1856) has great vitality, and all the musical details of the painting, including the expensive, calfskin model of the banjo (manufactured by the William Boucher Banjo Company of Baltimore) and the careful way Mount positioned the subject’s hands (performing the “claw hammer” style), are technically accurate. Most of all it is the young man’s sense of joyousness that makes this painting one of Mount’s most popular and enduring. The model for the work was George Freeman (1835-1880), a 21-year-old farmhand indentured to John Brewster, owner of the Brewster House (shown in the painting Long Island Farmhouses). Andrew Brewster, Mount’s model for The Bone Player, who was nearly twice George’s age, also lived within the joint Mount–Brewster household. As he did for all of his portraits, Mount worked slowly and with precision when he made The Banjo Player. Mount wrote in his diary that he completed the painting in eight days, with his model posing for him twice a day. According to one of Mount’s nephews, Mount particularly enjoyed the company of George Freeman as he was creating the painting. Mount owned a flute, several violins, and several hundred musical scores, both classical and folk, including African American tunes such as “Possum Up a Gum Stump.” There’s no record of anyone in the Mount or Brewster families owning a banjo, however. Whether it was an instrument George Freeman played remains a mystery.
This story appeared in the 2023 Summer issue of American History magazine.
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