William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), one of America's first and best anecdotal painters, portrayed rural life on Long Island.
William Sidney Mount was born on Nov. 26, 1807, at Setauket, Long Island. He worked on the family farm at Stony Brook until 1824, when he was apprenticed to his older brother Henry, a sign and ornamental painter in New York City. About the same time, another older brother became a fellow apprentice. All three brothers soon became painters. William, who had begun drawing on his own in 1825, studied for a short time with Henry Inman, a leading portrait painter, but lack of funds, ill health, and his desire to be original made him return home in 1827. The following year he painted his first likeness, a stiff, naive painting of himself holding a flute. Next he executed his first figure painting on a religious theme, which was greatly influenced by Benjamin West.
In 1829 Mount moved back to New York and resumed his studies. The following year he painted his first genre subject, the Rustic Dance, which was exhibited at the National Academy of Design and praised for its novelty, realism, and humor. In 1832 he was elected to the academy and for 33 years exhibited there regularly.
From 1829 to 1836 Mount spent most of his time painting portraits in New York City. He made remarkable progress as an artist. In 1836 he painted two canvases for the famous early collector Luman Reed. One of these, Bargaining for a Horse, is among Mount's finest works. Finely composed and deftly painted, it combines humor, warmth, and keen observation.
In 1837 Mount returned home, leaving only for brief trips to New York City. Unlike many American artists of his time, he did not travel to Europe, and unlike his brothers, he never married. He preferred life at Stony Brook, where he could paint familiar scenes and people. His paintings show a fondness for African Americans, music, and children. Through numerous engravings and color lithographs made in America and France, his work reached a wide audience.
In spite of the popularity of his genre subjects, Mount's main source of income was his portraits, which usually lack the warmth and vitality of his narrative paintings. Although he devoted more than 30 years to painting, his output was relatively small—no more than 200 canvases. This is because he developed an idea of a painting very slowly, was painstaking in each detail, and sometimes did not paint for several months.
About 1860 Mount designed a portable studio and home on wheels which was drawn by horses. He spent much time during his last years in this unique conveyance, but he painted very little because of declining health. He died on Nov. 19, 1868, at Setauket.
Bartlett Cowdrey and Hermann W. Williams, Jr., William Sidney Mount (1944), contains a life of the artist, a catalog of his genre and landscape paintings, and valuable research material. Since 1944 additional paintings have been located, many of which are included in an exhibition catalog of Mount's work by Alfred Frankenstein, Painter of Rural America: William Sidney Mount, 1807-1868 (1968). This catalog also contains passages from Mount's own writings, most of which have not been published before. □