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|Sunshine and Politics
by Alan Moore
Deborah J. Johnson, et al., William Sidney Mount: Painter of American Life, American Federation of Arts, 1998.
William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) made spare, cheery pictures of life on Long Island during the first half of the 19th century. There is a sweetness to his images of banjo players, farmers at work and at rest, men hunting, boys playing. Mount was known as a "comic" painter, but he's not a satirist in the barbed and wicked manner of the English artists Rowlandson and Cruikshank. Mount's figures are drawn with warmth, like those of Daumier. They belong in an olde-time situation comedy.
A new touring exhibition of Mount's work, organized by the American Federation of Arts, is currently on view at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, its final venue (to Apr. 4). For those of you who missed the exhibition, there's a catalogue with essays on Mount's fascinating imagery, his patrons and his commercial success with mass-marketed prints in the U.S. and France.
Mount's overtly simple scenes were often complex commentaries on political events. Exhibition curator Deborah Johnson, who heads the Museums at Stony Brook (where the show originated, and which was also the source of most of its works), does a good job at laying out these allegories in the catalogue.
My favorite among her interpretations is that of the 1830 School Boys Quarreling, a barnyard scene of six boys that may well be modeled on Jacques-Louis David's Oath of the Horatii (1784). Johnson reads the Mount painting as a "sly commentary" on the dispute between the establishment American Academy of Fine Arts and the then-upstart National Academy of Design.
Most interesting about Mount's 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. Mount's popular series of prints show cosmopolitan black musicians, playing banjo, violin or bones.
Mount's 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 tam o' shanter 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 naïve listener with empty promises ("ear tickling").
It appears that these paintings suggest a nostalgia for a time before abolition (slavery was ended in the North in the early 1800s). Mount's 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 Mount's style. Perhaps it's 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 Johnson's references to Mount's 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 Mount's Vision of Childhood."
Johnson is good on literary relations, the ut pictura poesis, but the discussion of Mount's representations of African Americans is not venturesome. Johnson cites two books, Albert Boime's polemical The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990), and Guy McElroy's Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940 (Bedford Arts, San Francisco, 1990).
Bernard Reilly, Jr., contributes an intriguing essay about engravings after Mount's paintings, particularly his images of black musicians, which found a ready market in France. He also discusses a banknote that uses one of Mount's designs. Reilly notes that allegorical figures on banknotes were replaced with figures drawn from real life during this period. In a footnote he reveals that 19th-century bank notes haven't been studied. Interesting observations, but he does not speculate on them.
I am grinding a pet ax here against the unadventurous nature of most American art history when it comes to theory and interpretive conclusions. When some scholar does finally venture down that path, s/he is blindly cited by all the others who work in the field.
Not to be churlish -- the scholarship is better than workmanly, and this catalogue is well printed, although unfortunately available only in paperback (mine has already split open on the spine). For those who don't insist on hardcovers, this book should fill a gap with its splendid color reproductions of most of the painter's major works.
ALAN MOORE is an art historian and critic.
In the bookstore:
William Sidney Mount: Painter of American Life
by Deborah J. Johnson
American Genre Painting: The Politics of Everyday Life
by Elizabeth Johns