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William Sidney Mount: The Education of an Artist
through September 9, 2007
Through September 9, 2007, the Long Island Museum presents William Sidney Mount: The Education of an Artist, an exhibition that explores the career development of the best-known genre painter in the United States in the first half of the 19th century.
Mount, whose rustic style depicted scenes of country folk in country settings, came to be thought of as a simple, uncultured "down-home" artist, who presumably had invented his own style, technique and materials. However, this exhibition demonstrates that nothing could be farther from the truth.
After his formal academic training at the National Academy of Design, a young Mount spent time in New York City and Long Island working and establishing relationships with other artists. He actively participated in art organizations and attended exhibitions, enabling him to keep abreast of changes in artistic techniques and styles and, at the same time, to maintain important business and social contacts. He typically bought his artist's materials, such as pre-pulverized pigments and pre-stretched, pre-primed canvases in Manhattan.
Throughout the exhibition, Mount paintings are paired with
works that helped to inspire and inform them. French, English and Dutch
etchings, engravings of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and paintings,
and works of other American artists all had a tremendous influence upon
Mount, as seen in this exhibition on display through September.
Additional text from the exhibition
William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) was the best-known genre painter in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. Since the sources of his fame -- scenes depicting country folk in country settings -- were rustic in nature, Mount came to be thought of as a simple, uncultured "down-home" type, who presumably had invented his own style and technique. But nothing could be farther from the truth.
In 1826, at the age of eighteen, William enrolled at the National Academy of Design in Manhattan. There he was taught by instructors who had trained in Europe and worked alongside artists who had studied there. Mount's schooling introduced him to European works of art and allowed him to make the acquaintance of collectors whose galleries included European examples. During his first two years at the National Academy, Mount copied from dozens of engravings printed by British and French lithographic firms. He eventually collected a sizable portfolio of engravings to which he referred throughout his career.
The English artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) was a major inspiration for young Mount. William Inslee, a business partner of Mount's oldest brother Henry, first introduced him to the works of Hogarth. Inslee owned a large set of Hogarth's prints and Mount set to work copying the artist. What resulted was a composite drawing of expressive head and figure studies that he titled Drawn from Hogarth's Works, (c. 1826). Mount appreciated the individual nature of each of Hogarth's character studies and frequently referred to these throughout his career.
During the early years of the National Academy, instructors relied heavily upon Dutch engravings as teaching aids. Mount's Self Portrait with Flute (1828) finds its prototype in the seventeenth-century Dutch tradition of "genre portraiture." Twenty-one years later, Mount returned to genre portraiture and created Just in Tune (1849). He was successful at combining the Dutch genre portrait with the theme of everyday life, and Just in Tune, along with several other paintings of musicians, was made into a very popular lithograph for the European print market.
Dutch scenes also provided the artist with inspiration for depicting interiors. Mount's The Sportsman's Last Visit (1835) and Interior of the Mount House (1860), painted twenty-five years apart, are both very similar to interiors painted by Dutch artists, in the perspective treatment of their architectural elements. In The Sportsman, ceiling beams are used to show depth in the picture plane, and in the interior scene of the family kitchen, Mount utilizes a Dutch technique called doorkijke, or "a look or glance through a door," as seen in the opening in the background. Mount studied dozens of Dutch engravings and paintings and worked hard to emulate Dutch artists' superior technique of creating depth and interest in interior spaces.
After his formal academic training, Mount continued to spend considerable time in New York City and its art world, dividing his time between there and Long Island. He befriended other artists, actively participated in art organizations and attended exhibitions, enabling him to keep abreast of changes in artistic techniques and styles and, at the same time, to maintain important business and social contacts and to establish new ones. One of those contacts was Jonathan Sturges (1802-1874), a merchant and business partner of Mount's first important patron Luman Reed (1785-1836), who became one of his most enthusiastic supporters.
In 1836 Sturges commissioned Farmers Nooning (1836). The superb rendering of the black man received an enormous amount of praise from critics (and his patron) and Farmers Nooning was instantly elevated to masterpiece status. Mount drew his inspiration for the sleeping haymen from the European Neoclassical tradition. He had seen Antiope (1808-1809) by John Vanderlyn (1775-1852), a copy of the Renaissance painting Jupiter and Antiope by Correggio (1524-1525), at Vanderlyn's Rotunda gallery in City Hall Park, New York, where it was displayed for years. The reclining figure was a popular subject for American artists painting in the academic style and was written about extensively in Mount's many notebooks and journals.
Mount privately continued to study art and by the end of his life had amassed a sizable library of academic and historical writings by American and European art authorities. The English art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), who advocated a painstakingly detailed rendition of an artist's natural surroundings, had a particularly significant influence on Mount in his later years. Mount's late masterwork, The Rock on the Green (1865), is a perfect example of the Ruskinian influence on the great American genre painter. For this particular work Mount took his inspiration from Ruskin's Modern Painters, and he recorded in his diary on May 9, 1866:
Ruskin says: In landscape, nothing ought to be tolerated but simple bona fide imitation of nature.
Mount's resulting rock is not a rock from his imagination; indeed, it is a very particular rock, which can still be seen in Mount's birthplace of Setauket, New York -- and every bump, crease and vein in the stone is faithfully recorded.
Many of Mount's paintings can be paired with the English, Dutch, and Italian works that inspired him. Though he never traveled to Europe (he actually, at one point, refused to go), he completely absorbed the rich European artistic legacy that was imported to the United States. Through engravings, books and copies of European masterpieces, Mount received a thorough education in the academic tradition and became America's first great genre painter.
(above: William Sidney Mount, The Sportsman's Last Visit, 1835, oil on canvas. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ward Melville.. Mount studied dozens of Dutch engravings and painting and worked hard to emulate their superior technique of creating depth and interest in interior spaces. In The Sportman's Last Visit, ceiling beams are used to show depth in the picture plane)
(above: William Sidney Mount, Dancing on the Barn Floor, 1831, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ward Melville. Dancing on the Barn Floor was one of Mount' earliest successes and is a perfect example of how his studies in perspective influenced him. The converging lines at the center of the painting are textbook examples of how students were taught to organize their canvases)
(above: William Sidney Mount, Farmers Nooning, 1836,
Gift of Frederick Sturges, Jr. Here Mount draws his inspiration from European
Neoclassicism. Mount saw John Vanderlyn's Antiope, a copy of a Renaissance
painting by Correggio, at the Rotunda in City Hall Park, where it was displayed
for years. The reclining figure was a popular subject for American artists
painting in the academic style)
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