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 William Sidney Mount  (1807 - 1868)

About: William Sidney Mount


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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: genre, history, portrait, and landscape painting

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BIOGRAPHY for William Mount
1807 (Setauket, Long Island, New York)
1868 (Setauket, Long Island, New York)

New York

Self portrait - William Sidney Mount - Self Portrait

Often Known For
genre, history, portrait, and landscape painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born on a farm in Setauket, Long Island, William Mount became what art historian Matthew Baigell described as the "foremost American genre painter."  When other artists were trying to copy European academic subjects of history, religion, and literature, he stayed in America and focused on the daily lives of East Coast people.

Many of his paintings expressed moralistic and political views, and he was also the first major American artists to portray black people with dignity although he opposed abolition of slavery.  Because of his humble subject matter and skillful realistic execution, he was well received by an American public of the era of Jacksonian democracy.  His serene agrarian paintings were also a welcome contrast to the increasing complexities of the Industrial Revolution.

He had a long-time studio at Stony Brook on Long Island, and many years later a local man, Ward Melville, established a collection honoring Mount, the first significant American-born painter to devote most of his profession to genre painting.

He was raised on the Setauket farm, and when his father died, Mount, age 7, was sent to live with relatives.  He served an apprenticeship in his brother's sign painting shop in New York City.  He studied engraving, and in 1826, was one of the first students of drawing at the National Academy where his primary subject was history painting.  But the next year, ill health caused him to return to Setauket where from 1830, he spent the remainder of his life doing genre paintings of his contemporaries. However, his portrait painting became his earliest livelihood, and he also did local landscapes as well as still lifes.

As a genre painter, he did numerous scenes of everyday and commonplace life, skillfully executed with meticulous detail and painstaking glazing. The focus of his work was the "American-ness of the new country's culture" (American Art Review 12/98).

Although he never traveled to Europe, he became the first American painter to be known widely there because his lithography pieces, thanks to New Yorker William Schaus who worked with a European dealer, were circulated throughout Europe. Part of their popularity was the fact that blacks and their place in American society were included as subjects, reflecting the racial tensions of the late 1850s and 1860s.

He died suddenly in 1868, an artist appreciated by his contemporaries for the timeliness of his subject matter but lauded by later generations for the clarity and precise execution of his canvases.

A special exhibition curated by Deborah Johnson and titled William Sidney Mount: Painter of American Life, was held in 1999 and organized by the Museums at Stony Brook, New York, and the American Federation of Arts.

Sources include:
Matthew Baigell, "Dictionary of American Art"
David Michael Zellman, "Three Hundred Years of American Art"

Biography from Godel & Co. Fine Art, Inc.:
William Sidney Mount grew up on a farm in Setauket, Long Island, and was the first American-born genre painter of significance to depict the daily lives and tasks of the average citizen.  He worked during a time when other artists emulated the European academic tradition of painting historical, religious, or literary scenes, yet Mount remained steadfast and depicted rural American subjects in a realistic style.

Mount was influenced by the artwork of British genre artists Hogarth and Wilkie, whose engravings were popular in the United States.  However, Mount's scenes are undoubtedly American in subject, such as Rustic Dance After a Sleigh Ride, exhibited at the National Academy of Design.  Mount's paintings were popular among the growing number of newly rich collectors, many of whom came from country towns such as those that Mount painted.

Mount's best-known patron was Luman Reed, who offered to pay for Mount to study art in Europe.  Mount declined "for fear I might be induced by the splendor of European art to tarry too long, and thus lose my nationality. We have nature, it speaks to every one and what efforts I have made in art have been appreciated by my countrymen."

While a boy, Mount recalled that his curiosity with painting was piqued when his younger sister Ruth began painting lessons at home.  His oldest brother Henry was the first member of the Mount family to make a living as an artist, and William first trained as his apprentice.  From 1826 to 1827 Mount was among the first students to study art at the National Academy of Design in New York City.

In 1829 Mount and another brother, Shepard set up a studio and painted portraits.  In 1830, he returned to Stony Brook, Long Island, where he lived and painted for the remainder of his life. Mount's success spread nationally and internationally with the reproduction of his paintings into popular prints and later into color lithographs published by the French firm, Goupil and Company. His paintings are housed in numerous public collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, National Gallery of Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, and the Stony Brook Museum of American Art.

Submitted by James Halperin, Co-Chairman Heritage Galleries and Auctioneers, Dallas, Texas

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:
Through his choice of subjects and manner of execution, William Sidney Mount created genre paintings that helped establish the aesthetic vocabulary for nineteenth-century American genre painting.  Born at Setauket, Long Island, on 26 November 1807, Mount traveled little in search of subjects.  Instead, he mined the visual riches of his locale and spent his whole life in the town of his birth.

As a young man he worked as an apprentice for his brother Henry, a sign painter and limner.  An older brother, Shepard Alonzo Mount (1804-1868), was also a painter, and he specialized in portraits.  William Sidney Mount studied painting with Henry Inman and was a member of the inaugural class of the art school of the National Academy of Design.

Mount's Rustic Dance after a Sleighride was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1830 and achieved considerable popularity.  From that time until the end of his life, he painted scenes of country life, men and women at work and recreation, and other activities of his neighbors on Long Island.

Mount was one of the first Americans to depict African Americans in his paintings. These sold well and he supplied American and European markets with many works similar to his signature piece, The Banjo Player (1858), in the collection of the Suffolk County Museum.

An accomplished musician, Mount composed and published songbooks and invented the "Cradle of Harmony" violin.  Musical events and performers like the banjo player were frequent subjects of his paintings.

William Sidney Mount died in his hometown, Setauket, Long Island, 19 November 1868.  His paintings are found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and the Art Institute of Chicago, and other major museums in the United States.

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