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Under the Canopy of Heaven: Works by William Sidney Mount
September 11, 2009 - June, 2010
William Sidney Mount came of age during one of the most exciting periods of American art. He was born in 1807 on Long Island in Setauket, but soon moved with his family to nearby Stony Brook. Mount was educated at the National Academy of Design in New York City, the most famous American art school of the early 19th century. He divided his time between New York City and the Stony Brook area, maintaining studios in both locations. In the city he took advantage of art and culture and met often with fellow artists, writers and musicians. But the countryside also exerted its pull, for Mount constantly returned to his rural roots, soaking up the atmosphere. Long Island's characteristic landscape, with its verdant flora and engaging light, served him well in the backdrops of his most famous paintings.
Mount communicated frequently with New York's Hudson River School" painters, early 19th century America's dominant group of artists, who specialized in depicting nature as sublime and awe-inspiring. He was acquainted, in fact, with the leaders of this group -- Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand and John Frederick Kensett -- and agreed enthusiastically with them as to the importance of elevating nature as a serious subject for painters.
However, there is a certain irony to Mount's constant championing of painting outdoors, or en plein air. As the artist's journals relate, although the background of every painting in this exhibition was indeed begun outside, from nature, each was in fact completed inside, in the artist's studio. The central human figures, for instance, were almost always painted indoors, where it was more comfortable for both the artist and his subjects and where Mount could more easily control pose and lighting. The artist's repeated extolling of the virtues of plein air painting, then, should be seen more as a reflection of then-prevalent fashion than as a literal description of his working methods.
By the time of Mount's death in 1868, he had fallen under the influence of another preacher of the virtues of painting from nature. This was the English critic John Ruskin, who saw art, nature and morality as spiritually unified and advised artists to give exacting scrutiny to nature's details in order to capture and portray its essence. To Ruskin, every detail was important: close attention must be paid to the precise details of each individual landform, the leaves on every tree, each blade of grass and the individual cornstalks growing in the late summer sun. Or, as William Sidney Mount put it, "Truth will speak -- no second hand nature for me."
Journal entries of William Sidney Mount within the exhibition
Images from the exhibition
(above: William Sidney Mount, Farmers Nooning, 1836, Oil on Canvas)
(above: William Sidney Mount, Catching Crabs, 1865, Oil on Canvas)
(above: William Sidney Mount, The Herald in the Country, 1853, Oil on panel)
(above: William Sidney Mount, Fair Exchange, No Robbery, Oil on panel)
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For biographical information on artists referenced in this essay please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists
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