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The Significance of the Imagery of Rural Life in the Work of William Sydney Mount and His Contemporaries The imagery of rural life in the works of artist is a very interesting and challenging theme. This is because most of the societies were moving from rural to urban through the history and therefore this transitional period is usually very important. During this period many changes happen to the landscape as well as to life of people in the overall context. Artists make pretty good representations of what is situation with emphasis on what will be in their works. In this paper we are going to examine the works of one of the World known artists William Sydney Mount as well as some works of his contemporaries concerning images of rural life that have great importance to the overall historical concepts. During the mid-nineteenth century, the United States was undergoing many cultural changes.
Towns were becoming cities, mass production was becoming prevalent, and many variations of people were coming to live. This made for major changes in social structure. There seemed to be a high class, the elites, and the lower class. However, this spawned a need for changes in this structure, something to bridge the gap. William Sidney Mount, captured this bridge of sorts in his paintings. His depictions of American life with subjects of an elite status intermingled with subjects of a lower class were cause of his praise as educator and moral critic, propounding freedom by individual example and arguing through his art for the establishment of a new order based on an emerging middle-class consciousness or ideology (Oedel, Gernes, 129).
Mounts use of basic artistic techniques made it easy for viewers to relate and understand the meanings in his works. His works were viewed by the American public as deceptively elementary... original, comprehensible, nationalistic, forceful, and timely (Oedel, Gernes, 128). Mount bridged the gap masterfully in nearly all of his works, employing elements of the two predominant social classes. He did so in the work that he is most famous for, The Painters Triumph, which he painted in 1838, at the age of 31. The painting shows a painter triumphantly showing his piece to a farmer, both men indicative of their respective social classes.
The farmer has a whip in his hand, and is hitched over as if in awe. The painting shows that the farmer has started from repose, both physical and intellectual, having risen from his chair to lean forward in attention (Oedel, Gernes, 137). The painter, meanwhile, has his arms open, as a sign of enthusiasm. The greater the extension of the arms... the more they express...
energy of sentiment and feeling, and the more epic the character of the gesture (Oedel, Gernes, 137). This shows Mounts ability to use human gestures in paintings to show feelings effectively. As stated before, Mount uses objects from both social classes and shows a kind of mutualism between the two, while still using elements so opposite and blending them. The objects in his painting are seen as visually and thematically hierarchical... as are farmer and artist (Oedel, Gernes, 134). In the bottom of the painting exist elements that could be indicative of the lower class, like a sketchbook, portfolio, and the drawing.
In the top of the painting, there is a picture of Apollo, an obvious sign of power, the artists easel, and the artists head, a sign of genius, centered in the painting. Meanwhile, the farmer is hitched over, just out of a Windsor chair, to imply the grounding of the farmer-observer in the real, mortal world of the present (Oedel, Gernes, 134). Mount points out the extremes of the two classes, and levels them in his paintings, front and center. Simply put, the artist symbolizes urbanism, the farmer agrarianism (Oedel, Gernes, 145), while representing a median of the two. William Sidney Mount successfully captured the vast differences of two social structures during mid-nineteenth century, while taking their differences and transforming them into middle-class relationships.
He is described as an American artist who is cultural mediator between an old world, elite tradition and a new, democratic order (Oedel, Gernes, 144 - 145). His painting, The Painters Triumph, is the perfect blend of the two extremes to draw attention to a common ground, the middle-class. He does this in order to harmonize and homogenize his society by leveling the extremes of both elitism and anti-intellectualism (Oedel, Gernes, 145). Even though Mounts technique is seen as elementary, and he tried to overcome his deficiency as a colorist as one critic put it, he is able to draw hierarchical relationships in his paintings only to erase them (Oedel, Gernes, 145).
In portraying the farmer and the artist as coequals in society, Mount creates a new class- the middle-class- through his art. The imagery of rural life played an important role in his art because Mount was a very close to this images person. His life experience made him aware of what is going on in rural areas of the state and thus he was able to express these things in the images he created. In attributing work to Mount, stylistic evidence is a paramount consideration. Equally important is the artists compilation Catalogue of Portraits and Pictures Painted by William Sidney Mount and his other papers, which together form a record of his work from 1825 to his death. From these materials and reviews of exhibitions of his work during his lifetime, the following information has been gleaned about significant paintings by Mount that remain unallocated today. (Johnson) Among the earliest of these is one described as A girl standing at a spring reading a love letter, which Mount recorded as having painted in New York City in 1827 at the time of his apprenticeship in his brother Henrys sign and ornamental painting business. (Johnson) The description identifies it as a genre subject - the earliest documented treatment by Mount of a scene from everyday life.
It precedes by several years Mounts earliest extant genre pictures inspired by his environment in rural Stony Brook. During his early years Mount was enamored of the grand manner tradition and painted several history and religious pictures. These included, in 1828, Christ Raising the Daughter of Jairus (in the Museums at Stony Brook) and Saul and the Witch of Endor (in the National Museum of American Art, Washington, D. C. ). He also recorded completing in the same year the Death of Hector from Homers Iliad as translated and published in 1720 by Alexander Pope. Mount noted that it was painted on canvas and measured three by four feet.
There is no record of the painting being exhibited, nor does Mount indicate whether or not it was sold. (Johnson) In 1829 Mount, still in New York City, painted two scenes inspired by eighteenth-century English literature. Celadon and Amelia, from James Thomson's The Seasons: Summer (1727), is among the first works Melville acquired for the Museums at Stony Brook. Unlocated today is Crazy Kate from William Cowper's poem The Sofa (1785). If Mount remained true to Cowper he would have depicted a serving maid dressed in a tattered satin gown trimmed with lace. She would have been wandering the ocean shore mourning the death of her lover, a sailor. The painting was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York City in 1829.
Mount noted that it was sold for $ 10, but neglected to identify the purchaser. (Stephenson) The undated pencil sketch shown in Figure 1 is inscribed Crazy Kate and may reflect the appearance of the lost oil. Another lost painting is Country Lad on a Fence, painted in 1831 and documented as measuring twelve by fourteen inches. It was shown at the 1832 National Academy exhibition as Sketch from Nature, and, although the catalogue lists the lender as the artist Asher B. Demand (1796 - 1886), Mount actually sold the painting to the Baltimore collector Robert Gilmore Jr. (1774 - 1848) for $ 25.
The painting was included in Gilmore November 1863 estate sale. The appearance of the painting is known today only from the wood engraving shown in Arts museum. (Finly 55) William Sidney Mount was the first American-born artist to achieve widespread fame for his paintings of ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Yankee farmers, rustic dancers, country musicians, and mischievous schoolboys animate Mounts work with a warm familiarity that belies the artists veiled social commentary and sly political satire. New York Times art critic Holland Cotter observed once, Mount...
paved the way for artists as varied as Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Edward Hopper, Horace Pippin and Norman Rockwell, (New York Times, A Young and Un innocent America, Friday, Aug. 14, 1998). From images of farmers making cider to boys trapping rabbits, the pieces in the exhibition offer viewers insight into Mounts America, an understanding of the artists creative process and a sense of how his work both reflected and influenced popular culture in its day. Genre painting typically depicts ordinary social and domestic scenes and as such reflects and preserves the particular flavor of contemporary life. Mounts paintings were remarkable in their commonplace rural subjects and in the sometimes-controversial messages, themes and ideas expressed through canny use of imagery and detail. (Johnson) Most interesting about Mounts paintings, at least to a contemporary viewer, is their integrated cast of characters.
Mount represents African Americans and whites together, singly and in groups. A trio of white men play music in a barn while a black man listens from outside. Together in a boat, a black woman and a white boy search for eels. Mounts popular series of prints show cosmopolitan black musicians, playing banjo, violin or bones. Mounts pictures have been interpreted as an allegorical commentary on slavery - Mount was a Democrat, and felt that blacks were being used politically. An image of a boy in a theme of shatter tickling the ear of a dozing black field hand, for instance, is read as a parable about abolitionists (the cap was an abolitionist symbol) plying a naive listener with empty promises (ear tickling).
It appears that these paintings suggest nostalgia for a time before abolition (slavery was ended in the North in the early 1800 s). Mounts family held slaves on Long Island, and his sentimental recollection of African Americans must come from his experience. Johnson does not explicate the sources of Mounts style. Perhaps its not possible to explain the structural slyness of an artist who mixes strong political meanings into an art that appeals to sentiment - all sweetness and light and lost rural boyhood. Most of Johnsons references to Mounts intricately worked-out political allegories are footnoted to a work by Elizabeth Johns, American Genre Painting: The Politics of Everyday Life (Yale University Press, 1991). Johns contributes a brief essay to the catalogue, Boys Will Be Boys: Notes on William Sidney Mounts Vision of Childhood. (Johnson) It would be pretty unbalanced not to mention the contemporaries of Mount in the representation of the history of the painting the images of rural life.
With the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, an era of democratization and equality swept America and with it a period of vast expansion of creativity in the arts. Landscape artists Thomas Doughty, Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Frederic Church, and George Incest strove to document the untouched look of the new Eden, blending their individual styles with the Old World romantic traditions of the sublime and the beautiful. It was the American landscapists who first captured the symbolic features of the new nation. Instead of ancient ruins, these painters found history in spectacular land and water formations and, especially, in the inclusion of Native Americans within their scenes. Unleashed waterfalls, soaring eagles, and other emblems of liberty came to represent the countrys image. (Frisbee) A narrative or genre tradition of depicting everyday experiences began in the Jacksonian era when artists like John Quidor matched imagery to Washington Irving's History of New York or when William Sidney Mount committed the rural life of Long Island to canvas or when Lilly Martin Spencer explored images of her own household. (Frisbee) An expanded audience for landscape, genre, and another relatively new Jacksonian subject, the still life, came with the mid-century explosion of magazines, newspapers, and journals, and with prints produced from original artwork, distributed through organizations like the American Art Union.
Lush beautiful still life paintings by Severin Rose, John Francis, and others celebrated the American harvest, offering little indication of a major civil war on the horizon. (Finly) Popularizing the common American as a hero worthy of art, Mount became something of an American hero himself. His fame grew as his paintings were reproduced in popular engravings and gift books, collections of short stories written by American authors and illustrated by American artists. Well-known writers would create stories around Mounts pictures, Johnson says. So therefore, Mounts paintings influenced native literature and the storytelling of American life. (Finly) Born in Setauket in 1807, Mount got his start as apprentice to his brother Henry, a sign and ornamental painter in New York City. William Mount became a professional artist about 1830, achieving distinction for his genre paintings - scenes of everyday life that depicted his fellow ordinary Long Islanders at work and at play. At that time, depicting common folk engaged in the pursuit of happiness was unheard of in fine art; only figures out of history, myth, literature or the Bible were considered worthy of representation.
Similarly, for the serious young American artist, it was considered a requirement to travel to Europe - the birthplace of civilization - to study painting. Not for William Sidney Mount; Long Island was his muse. No Europe-worshipper, he spent most of his time at his Setauket birthplace, the Hawkins-Mount Homestead, where he painted the scenes of agrarian life he saw around him. The work widely regarded as his masterpiece, Farmers Nothing (1836), depicts a languid, typically all-American scene of field hands breaking for lunch, yet the subjects are rendered with an attention to detail previously reserved for portraits of noble Europeans. In spirit, the painting is pure democracy. (Stephenson) At home, in the Setauket-Stony Brook area, Mount was a local hero as well. An accomplished violinist, he was often invited to play the popular jigs, waltzes and reels of the time for parties and dances.
Everybody knew him, Johnson says. He had a reputation, and people enjoyed being around him. They were very proud of him. Mount even patented an instrument called the cradle of harmony, a violin he designed to be more audible over the boisterous foot-stomping typical of hoedowns such as the one he depicted in his painting, Rustic Dance After a Sleigh Ride. (Frisbee) Though he only occasionally left the Island for brief forays to New York City, Mounts fame traveled far and wide. Mount died in 1868, of pneumonia contracted on what would be his final trip to New York City. Toward the end of his life, another great American painter eclipsed him: Winslow Homer, whose favorite subject was the sea.
But by the time of his death, William Sidney Mounts place in history was secure. For in his heyday - the quarter-century between 1830 and 1855 - he was our visual ambassador, painting scenes that proudly represented our country and its people, both at home and all over the world. Bibliography: M. Oedel, K. Gernes, William Sidney Mounts Art, New York: Viking Press, 1989 Deborah Johnson, The Genre Paintings of William Sidney Mount, from The Guardian, Issue: August 1998 Joe Frisbee, American Life on Display at The Frick Art Museum, from Ottawas Statesman, April, 1999 Will Finly, 19 th Century's Representation of Rural Life, Birmingham: States Press, 1995 Joe Stephenson, American Canvas Masters, from Arts, Issue: October 1996 Deborah J. Johnson, et al. , William Sidney Mount: Painter of American Life, American Federation of Arts, 1998.
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