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The Riches of Sight: William Sidney Mount and His World


The Riches of Sight: William Sidney Mount and His World opened July 27, 2002 in the Main Gallery of The Long Island Museum's Art Museum. Drawn largely from the museum's unsurpassed collection of paintings by William Sidney Mount (1808-1868), The Riches of Sight considers the many complexities of the life and work of this renowned American genre painter. For the exhibition, the main gallery of the Art Museum will be divided into three areas, allowing visitors to approach the works on display from any number of sequences and viewpoints. (left: William Sidney Mount, The Novice, 1847, oil on canvas)

One section sets forth the basic outline of Mount's life, almost all of which was spent on Long Island and in New York City. Personal objects will enrich a large illustrated timeline setting forth the key events in the life of the artist and will relate them to national and international events of the period. An emphasis is placed on literary and artistic events that directly affected Mount, such as the publication of Thoreau's Walden, which he read and admired, and the founding of the National Academy of Design, where he studied. An island in the center of the gallery will contain three artifact-rich vignettes featuring objects related to the artist, including paintings of the Hawkins-Mount homestead, furniture and other objects from it, and Mount's personal collection of musical instruments and scores.

In another section, visitors explore influences on William Sidney Mount as a painter. Mount's early paintings will be exhibited, in addition to his student sketches after prints by British artist William Hogarth and other European artists. For his entire life, Mount was aware of and affected by the work of these artists, as well as by the best-known American artists of the period, many of whom he counted as friends and colleagues. A stellar work in the exhibition will be John Vanderlyn's Antiope, a dramatic painting of a lounging mythical woman after which Mount modeled the reclining black man in Farmers Nooning. Other, less traditional influences will also be included, such as phrenology, spiritualism, music, theater and politics.

The third section pairs contemporary criticism of William Sidney Mount's paintings with the actual works being discussed by the critics -- usually positively, but sometimes negatively. Replicas of reviews in The New-York Herald and The New-York Mirror, in addition to other newspapers and periodicals, will be displayed alongside the paintings. Why did this Stony Brook artist arouse such national and international interest? Visitors will be asked to consider what art criticism is and will be given a chance to submit their own reviews of Mount's works. The exhibition will remain on view through March 23, 2003. (left: William Sidney Mount, Costume Sketch, drawn at The Bowery Theatre, c. 1832. Museum collection. pencil and watercolor on paper)

Also on view in The Art Museum is the Fine Lines: Drawings by William Sidney Mount exhibition. On view are twenty five line drawings produced by the artist over his forty year career. Many served as preliminaries to his paintings; others are simple musings. Themes represented are familiar ones to Mount's paintings - theater life, politics, dancing, scenes of domesticity and marine life. This exhibition is the culmination of a six-month long preservation project sponsored by the archival supply company Nielsen & Bainbridge. The drawings will remain on view through September 6, 2002


(left: William Sidney Mount, Girl Asleep, 1843, oil on canvas on paperboard)


(left: William Sidney Mount, California News, 1850, oil on canvas)


Wall text from the exhibition The Riches of Sight: William Sidney Mount and His World:


Section I - Biography


Mount and Music


"I am confident that music adds to my health and happiness."


Music strongly influenced William Sidney Mount's life and art. When Mount was eight years old he was sent to live with an uncle, Micah Hawkins, who had a passion for the theater and music and passed this love on to his nephew, Hawkins was the composer of a successful operetta called The Saw-Mill, or A Yankee Trick and was known for entertaining customers with a piano he had built into a counter of the store he operated.
Mount was an accomplished violinist and was often invited to play the popular jigs, waltzes, and reels of the time at parties and dances. In 1852 he patented the "Cradle of Harmony," a violin he designed to be more audible over the boisterous foot stomping typical of country dances. He displayed various models of the violin in 1853 at the Exhibition of Industry of All Nations in New York's Crystal Palace.
Mount was very close to his brother Robert, a music and dance instructor. The only Mount son who did not make a career of painting, Robert traveled extensively most of his life, arranging performances and parties. William wrote his brother numerous letters in which he discussed fiddle playing and dancing. He would often include bars of music from songs he heard performed at area parties and even composed two of his own songs, In the Cars, on the Long Island Railroad and Musings of an Old Bachelor, both. of which are seen in this exhibition.
William Sidney Mount's musical inclinations and his talent for art intermingled in a complementary way. Many of the artist's paintings make visible -- sometimes seemingly almost audible -- this blend of music and art. This fusion reaches a crescendo in Catching the Tune, where a probably autobiographical painting directs the viewer's attention to the process.


Mount in the Country


"This is a very quiet place. Here one can retire from the busy world if he pleases."


William Sidney Mount was born in Setauket, Long Island, and also died there, but the center of home life for him and his family was the Hawkins farm (now the Hawkins-Mount Homestead) in nearby Stony Brook, which had been in his mother's family for generations. The property of ninety-some acres provided limitless sources of inspiration for his art: bucolic countryside, rustic outbuildings, a variety of farm animals, and hearty neighbors willing to pose.
Among Mount's favorite subjects to portray were farmers and country gentlemen -- to him the backbone of democracy. His family's comfortable circumstances, and the early commercial success of his paintings, allowed him the freedom to paint when he liked and gave him an affectionate, and somewhat rose-colored, view of country life.
Mount participated in the life of his community, but his unmarried status probably prevented him from being fully integrated into it. His diaries are full of accounts of boating trips, attending socials and musical events, and participating in local spiritualist meetings. After his mother's dearth in 1841, he inherited a partial ownership in the family homestead, along with his other siblings. But he never fully settled in there, moving in and out, often after disagreements with members of his extended family who also lived in the house.
Before William Sidney Mount, few American artists had looked to the lives of ordinary folk for inspiration, for only figures out of history, myth, literature, or the Bible were considered worthy of representation. Mount's works depicting country people were enormously popular, and laid the foundation for a school of American genre painting whose effects are still felt.

Mount in the City


The nearness of New York City played an important role in William Sidney Mount's development as an artist. He first became acquainted with the city when at the age of eight he was sent there by his mother to live there for a period with an uncle, Micah Hawkins, and his family. In his teens, Mount got his start as an apprentice to his older brother Henry, a sign and ornamental painter whose shop was located in Manhattan. And in 1826 be began his studies in the city at the newly founded National Academy of Design It was there that he came to know many of America's most outstanding artists including Samuel F. B. Morse, Asher B. Durand, and Thomas Cole.
With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, New York City became the leading center of commerce in America, far surpassing its rivals, Philadelphia and Boston. This growth in affluence generated an ideal atmosphere for young artists as the new class of merchants and other entrepreneurs became interested in fine arts and culture. It was in this climate that Mount met prominent businessmen, such as Luman Reed and Jonathan Sturges, whose interest in art collecting and patronage helped launch his career.
William Sidney Mount's feelings toward New York City were complex. Although he spent a great deal of time there, he never painted a single canvas with a specifically urban setting, even though he often observes, in his notes, the abundance of subject matter to be found there. He lived in New York for extended periods on several occasions, but, the dirt, the overcrowding and the general disorderliness of the urban setting soon impelled him back to Stony Brook. But there is no doubt that Mount understood the indispensability of the city to his career. He remained a member of the National Academy of Design, showed painting regularly in the city, and attended many of artistic and cultural events to which only the most eminent artists were invited.


Section II - Influences


William Sidney Mount, Participant in the Popular Trends and Enthusiasms of His Time


William Sidney Mount was deeply involved in the national and international issues that interested many educated and well-to-do mid-nineteenth-century Americans.
In the pre-Civil-War period, Mount was almost obsessed with national politics. Active in the Democratic party both in New York City and on Long Island, the artist carried on an impassioned correspondence on the leading political issues of the day, including those relating to electoral corruption, monetary speculation, Westward expansion, and the treatment of African Americans. All of these issues found their way into his paintings.
Other national movements and fashions of the day -- among them phrenology and spiritualism -- also influenced Mount's life and his art. By no means the exclusive domain of the fanatic and the simple-minded, these "sciences" found disciples in many respected American political and cultural leaders of the period including James Fenimore Cooper, William Cullen Bryant, Horace Greeley -- and even Abraham Lincoln. Mount was able, he reported, to contact not only deceased members of his family but also the great artists of the past.
Nor was Mount an entirely free spirit immune from the lure of the power of money and the people who had it. Many of his most famous works were painted as commissions ham wealthy New York merchants, publishers, and other entrepreneurs. Sometimes he was forced to redo paintings in order to please patrons. In appropriate cases he even included "product placements" in his works -- for instance the well-labeled newspapers that appear in California News and The Herald in the Country.
Modem inventions and the general enthusiasm for "Improvements" fascinated Mount. He dabbled with inventions of his own, even patenting one -- a reconfigured violin. The coming of train service to Long Island and its extension along the North Shore in the direction of Stony Brook was viewed as a great boon and a source far celebration, as in a fiddle tune Mount composed, "In the Cars, on the Long Island Rail Road." Nature had its beauties, to be sure, but machines also had their attractions.

The Art Education of William Sidney Mount


William Sidney Mount was born into a family actively involved in the arts, with strong existing attachments to New York City. An uncle, Micah Hawkins, had had considerable success in Manhattan as a playwright and producer. William's older brothers Henry and Shepard Mount went to New York at a young age to work as sign painters and portrait painters. And it was the amateur artwork of his sister Ruth that whetted Mount's own interest in painting.
In 1826, at the age of eighteen, Mount enrolled in the recently established National Academy of Design in New York, where he worked alongside artists who had studied in Europe add was taught by instructors who had trained there. Mount's schooling introduced him to European academic methods of art training and European art books, exposed him to European works of art, and allowed him to make the acquaintance of collectors whose galleries included European examples. In fact, he seriously considered traveling to Europe for study, but never did. And this, he said, was due to his fear that he might like it too much: "I might be induced by the splendor of European art too tarry too long, and thus lose my nationality."
After his academic training, Mount continued to spend considerable amounts of time in New York City. While there he befriended other artists, actively participated in art organizations, received commissions from the city's most eminent art patrons, and attended numerous exhibitions and theatrical and musical performances. Only in later years, after he had gained a national reputation and clientele, did he resolve to spend most of his time in the pastoral environs of Stony Brook -- where the art world sought him out.
Even in his later years, William Sidney Mount carried on a voluminous correspondence with New York artists, critics, and patrons. He often visited New York -- via steam packet or train -- and friends and acquaintances from the city visited him. He continued to be involved at the National Academy and other art associations. And he maintained an impressive library, including works on art history and art theory, as well as other interests, some of which are included in this exhibition.

The Worldly William Sidney Mount


During his lifetime, the artist William Sidney Mount acquired the popular reputation of being a loner, a simple down~home sort who belittled European culture, disliked the cosmopolitan art world centered in New York City, and preferred to be among the ordinary folk of rural Long Island.
Belying this reputation, Mount enjoyed the finest classical art education then available in America, carefully studied European books and European art throughout his life, and counted as colleagues, friends, and patrons the most sophisticated artists and writers in the country. He was also influenced throughout his career by various new European art movements as they came into vogue in America.
Mount was also actively involved in mainstream popular concerns, from national politics to the widespread nineteenth-century fascination with what are now called 'pseudosciences;" including spiritualism and phrenology. His interest in popular music is well known, and he worked at perfecting his skills at playing and writing tunes -- and perfecting the designs of musical instruments -- throughout his life.
All of this was directly reflected in the art of William Sidney Mount. The works in this gallery will reveal some of the ways in which the "outside" world molded and informed the work of this great American artist.

Section III - Critics


William Sidney Mount and His Critics


"An artist should remember that criticism does not alter the tone of a violin any more than the tone and merit of his paintings."


Critical reviews seen in this exhibition are as they appeared in contemporary publications; many of the reviews have been copied from William Sidney Mount's personal clippings and scrapbooks, An artist who was fully aware of his stature and position in the artistic world, Mount sometimes seemed to be obsessed with his reviews. He often commented in his journals and letters about his exhibits and their critical response. These clippings are an excellent research tool for future art historians and researchers, as they help to piece together an entire history of a painting, from the artist's inception of the idea through its exhibition.
Art criticism in the United States has a very short history; before the nineteenth century art critics were virtually unknown creatures. Relatively little artwork was produced during the Colonial and Federal periods, and far less was publicly displayed. With the founding of the Pennsylvania Academy in 1805 and The National Academy of Design in 1826 American artists were afforded the opportunity for the first time to exhibit their work regularly in annual exhibitions. Critical reviews of these annuals began immediately and, with that, the field of American art criticism was born.
Many of the early reviews were printed in newspapers and periodicals, which were primarily literary or political in nature. Early critiques relied upon simple description, emphasized subject matter over anything else, and were simply lists of objects with brief descriptions or comments attached. Noticeable improvements in American criticism began to appear during the 1830's and 1840's, particularly with the increasing popularity of paintings by the Hudson River School painters, such as Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand.
By the 1850's new periodicals dedicated to art began to emerge. As American art increased in quantity and quality, critics increasingly made astute and precise observations and were able to move past puffery and hyperbole. Reviews in newspapers began to lengthen and were more detailed in content. By mid-century it was not uncommon for an exhibition review to be published serially, sometimes stretching over as many as eight issues. By the Civil War men and women began to find employment as "art critics" and it was around the same time that art reviews began to be more personal -- and style, rather than subject matter or the personality of the artist, was emphasized.
By the end of the century art had become highly sophisticated. The last three decades of the nineteenth century saw the birth of the American art museum and the growth of commercial art galleries. American artists also became more aware of themselves as professionals and their patrons became more aware of art trends on both sides of the Atlantic.


Wall text from the exhibition Fine Lines: Drawings by William Sidney Mount:


Fine Lines: Drawings by William Sidney Mount
The Long Island Museum's collection of artworks by William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) numbers more than 1,500 pieces. Mount's artistic genius is most familiar to our visitors through his oil paintings -- such as Farmers Nooning, Dance of the Haymakers, and The Banjo Player -- of which we own more than 150. But, in actuality, the bulk. of the museum's collection is made up of drawings (pencil or ink on paper) produced by the artist over the duration of his forty-year career.
Many of Mount's drawings served as preliminary studies for his paintings. Others were produced simply as musings, random jottings, and exercises by an artist who found the act of drawing as natural and as necessary as breathing. Mount often followed familiar themes, such as home life, the seaside, theater, politics, and dancing, when he drew, and many of these scenes appear in his finished oil paintings.
This exhibition is the culmination of a six-month project sponsored by the archival supply company Nielsen & Bainbridge. Through a grant from its Partnership for Conservation program the company responded to the needs of the museum by donating the necessary acid-free archival materials to rehouse our Mount drawings. It is with gratitude to Nielsen & Bainbridge that we present these interesting works to out visitors.

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