American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience

By Barbara Novak | Go to book overview

8.
William Sidney Mount

MONUMENTAL GENRE

Very expressive and clever are Mount's happy delineations of the arch, quaint, gay, and rustic humors seen among the primitive people of his native place; they are truly American. 1 H. T. TUCKERMAN

As Tuckerman's comment indicates, William Sidney Mount ( 1807-68) was appreciated in his own time as a local genre artist of considerable merit, who satisfied further the need for "truly American" scenes that characterized the concurrent taste in landscape painting.

Mount was indeed "truly American," but he was hardly the provincial boor that Tuckerman's remark might lead us to suspect. 2 Today, from our vantage point, Mount is "American" not because of his American scenes but because of correlations and continuities with major figures within the American tradition. A close friend of Thomas Cole, whom he called the "high priest of the Catskill Mountains" and with whom he went out painting and playing music, 3 his art partook to some extent of the tripartite division already noted in the Hudson River development. Like Cole, Durand, and other members of that school, he could paint sentimental potboilers that pleased the lowest common denominator of public taste (Ill. 8-1). Yet, under the layers of sentiment, or apart from them, nineteenth-century artists were concerning themselves with serious artistic problems that are thoroughly integral to the development of art in any age.

Thus, Mount, like his Hudson River friends, had a sentimental public salon side and a private side. More important, there was, in the execution of some of his best works, an intense interest in formal problems, which now stands in sharp contradistinction to the thoroughly literary terms in which his art was discussed by contemporary critics. The Power of Music (see Ill.5-19), with its black listener, for example, provoked this comment:

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