William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) formed an organic and everlasting bridge between his two chief passions in life: art and music. Perfect Harmony, re-explores the confluence of Mount’s music and art through oil paintings, pencil drawings, and fascinating objects. Unless otherwise indicated, all artwork in this exhibition is by William Sidney Mount.
Self Portrait with Flute
With index finger pointed inward, suggesting music is at the heart of his identity, Mount executed this self-portrait as a 21-year-old student. His chosen prop, a boxwood flute, was telling but also unusual for the artist. In other paintings, such as The Novice (1847), on the opposite wall of this gallery, his use of wind instruments is often characteristically connected to young boys or women. Mount made tin flutes for friends and neighbors. His uncle, composer Micah Hawkins, also had the flute in his repertoire of instruments.
Portrait of Micah Hawkins
Inscription (on reverse): Portrait of Micah Hawkins Esqr./Painted by Louis Child, Esqr./Retouched from memory by Wm. Sidney Mount May 1856. Mount’s paternal uncle, Micah Hawkins (1777-1825), left formidable impressions upon his nephew. Young William came to live with his uncle and aunt, Micah’s wife Letty, at 50 Oak Street, New York, several years after the death of his father. William had probably already learned the violin by this time, from Hawkins family slave Anthony “Toney” Hannibal Clapp, but Uncle Micah would teach him much more.Hawkins was a carriage maker who eventually opened a grocery store at Catherine Slip, the Manhattan destination and embarkation point for East River ferries from Brooklyn. Hawkins was also a largely self-taught musician and composer, and collected dance tunes and other music, a practice his nephew later continued.
The Banjo Player
A testament to Mount’s strengths as a precise portraitist, this painting was completed for German immigrant art gallery owner Wilhelm Schaus (1820-1892). The work was one of a series of paintings done for the French printmaking concern Goupil & Company. In the musician’s vibrant smile and colorful vertically-striped silk clothing, with lines that mimic banjo strings, the composition breathes detail and life. Certain features provide additional interest, such as the small coachman’s bugle horn hanging around the sitter’s neck. Musicologist Christopher Smith has identified the young man’s banjo as a minstrel-style instrument made by William Boucher Company of Baltimore, which used snare-drum lug nuts rather than tack heads for tightening, producing louder results. The sitter was identified (by a 20th century researcher) to be George Freeman, a teenage indentured servant. Mount completed this work in 8 days.
The Bone Player
The original oil painting that this lithograph was created from is in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Like The Banjo Player and Just in Tune, this was commissioned by Wilhelm Schaus with an intent to reach an overseas market. There are subtle differences between this work and Mount’s original: an earthenware pitcher, suggestive of drinking, is gone, and the sitter is notably thinner. As with the original painting, however, the composition emphasizes the joy of rhythm and musical participation.
The Setauket Military Band
Possibly a scene sketched from an annual federal militia parade, Mount captures the informal joy of a group’s preparations with two African American dancers posed – similar to other views – off center, to the right.
Dance of the Haymakers
A contemporary critic who praised this work claimed that it makes the viewer “step out of the exhibition room into the barn, and instead of a spectator, you become an actor in the scene.” Mount accomplished this through stage managing a carefully-constructed theatrical composition. Some form of interaction exists between many of the people and animals on the canvas, and all are unified by the musical jig being danced to at the center. The fiddler (identified by Mount himself as local farmer Shepard Smith Jones, 1819-1889) keeps the action going as a young African American boy taps in rhythm on the barn door.
Just in Tune
The fiddler tunes, deep in concentration, but with a face suffused in pleasure. This is the first of a set of paintings of musicians that Mount produced on a commission for Schaus (see labels for The Banjo Player and The Bone Player) that eventually became lithographs. Historian Christopher Smith has carefully described Mount’s exquisite attention to the fiddler’s technique and posture: Propping the instrument end pin on the knee and turning the belly toward the ear; grasping the bow’s frog with the last fingers of the right hand while using the same hand’s thumb and forefinger both to seat and turn the high E-string’s peg, and the left thumb to pluck single strings, with the left-hand fingers steadying the body.
Right and Left
The title of this painting refers to both the player’s left-handed fiddle position and, probably, to a common square dancing call. Mount’s African American violinist is vibrant and well-dressed, with a fine waistcoat, shirt with French cuffs, silk necktie, and felt hat tilted in a jaunty manner. His entire posture and expression indicates that he is poised to start.
Dancing on the Barn Floor
This was one of Mount’s earliest successful genre paintings, a work that took shape from sketches that the artist did at New York stage performances of the play The Heart of Midlothian, in about 1830. The scene feels spontaneous, warm, and lively, with the man and woman moving in sync with the violinist, and a figure at the barn’s back door beckoning unseen people to join the festivities. The interplay of shadow and shading of light are more complex than Mount’s previous paintings, indicating a maturation of skill. Mount himself gave scant information about the details and decisions in this composition, describing it as: “Interior of a barn. Part of the foreground unfinished—with figures dancing.”
“Cradle of Harmony” Violin
Mount’s interest in violin design originated in the late 1830s. He decided that he wanted a fiddle that could be heard above the stomping and loud steps on floorboards at country dances. His restless curiosity drove him to rethink and reshape the structure and form of the instrument itself. The goal of creating a violin with a concave shape and a back that was curved inward was intended to, in Mount’s words, make the “tone of the instrument more sonorous, rich, and powerful.” With help from New York City carpenter James H. Ward, Mount received a patent for his design in 1852 and then demonstrated his invention at the New York Crystal Palace in 1853.
Mount was commissioned to do this painting of flute instruction by the short-lived American Art-Union and paid $300 for his efforts. Mildly chastised by his friend, fellow artist Charles Lanman, for not providing quite intricate enough landscape details, Mount defended his work: “if figures are the principal, everything else should be subordinate depending on the taste of the artist…all is sacrificed for the good of the figures.” Once again, Mount calls attention to proper positioning and form in musical performance.
Catching the Tune
Nearing the end of his life and suffering from health ailments that included failing vision, Mount approached familiar and beloved musical themes one last time with this work. The subject was apparently inspired by his brother Robert Nelson Mount’s observation of a scene witnessed while traveling in Georgia in 1840—I saw recently a scene which I think will make a good picture.—It was two musical characters.—One was whistling a tune, and the other was sitting in a listening attitude with violin in hand ready to commence playing when his ‘crony’ had finished his part. The subject no doubt is a hacknied one but I do not believe any one has handled it as you can.In Mount’s journal, he records starting it on July 10, 1866, mentioning the song “Possum up a gum tree”—likely a version of the popular tune “Possum up a Gum Stump.” Mount’s last “Cradle of Harmony” violin, made by his nephew and displayed here, is likely the model for the instrument in this painting
The Power of Music
The painting that this is based upon, also titled The Force of Music, is currently owned by The Cleveland Museum of Art. Mount expresses the ability of music to bring diverse races together, even as African American and white laborers remain in segregated settings. Here, the barn door operates as an exclusionary device, even as the artist depicts the black figure in a dignified manner.
“In the Cars on the Long Island Railroad”
This is one of several musical compositions written by Mount which are in LIM’s collection. The violin parts’ stopping and starting is indicative of a train lurching forward. The main line of the Long Island Railroad, which stretched from near the present location of Atlantic Avenue Terminal in Brooklyn, to Greenport, on the North Fork, had just been completed 6 years prior to the writing of this song. Mount was a regular passenger in his travels between Suffolk County and New York City, stopping at the terminus in Brooklyn before taking a steamboat on in to Manhattan.