By Ellen Barcel
The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook revealed its newest exhibit, Drawn from Life: Objects and Stories from William Sidney Mount’s Paintings Aug. 12. Mount was an early 19th-century genre artist who lived from 1807 to 1868. Born in Setauket, Mount spent much of his career in Stony Brook. He is buried in the Setauket Presbyterian Church’s Cemetery.
Julie Diamond, director of communications at the museum, noted that the William Sidney Mount house, located on the corner of Route 25A and Stony Brook Road in Stony Brook, is preserved to this day. Mount had his studio in the third-floor attic of the house, which was built in 1725 and became a National Historic Landmark in 1965.
The Long Island Museum has the largest collection of Mount’s work and memorabilia in the world. His paintings show ordinary people doing ordinary things: washing laundry, dancing to the music of a violin, fishing, trapping, etc. He was a contemporary of the Hudson River School of painting.
The exhibit is curated by museum assistant curator Jonathan Olly. New to the LIM since February, he earned a doctorate in American studies just a few years ago from Brown University. Although this is his first major exhibit at the LIM, he knew he wanted to become a museum curator back when he was a summer intern in Washington, D.C., at the National Museum of American History. “I’ve been working in museums since 2001,” he said.
One of the really unique paintings on view is the portrait of Robert Morris Russell. According to Olly, Mount painted it in 1832 along with a portrait of Russell’s wife and mother. The painting has not been on display “in over 40 years.” It needed conservation, which was provided through a Greater Hudson Heritage grant.
Russell “died that year, a victim of the cholera epidemic in New York.” Olly continued, “He was a merchant in New York [City]. His wife, Ruth Amelia Smith Russell moved the family back to Long Island after he died.” Since both his and his wife’s portraits are on display, this “is the first time they are reunited in public since the 1970s.”
Olly noted that in assembling the exhibit “we also drew on our textile collection to outfit mannequins.” An 1830s black dress and a man’s black waistcoat are paired with these two portraits.
While some of the objects paired with each particular painting are of the period, a few are actually the items Mount painted. One of Mount’s original easels is on display, along with one of his violins. The 1857 instrument, one of the Cradle of Harmony violins he designed, was unique in that it had a concave, instead of a usual convex, back in order to “create a larger sound in a crowded room,” at a time when there was no electricity — no amplifiers. “He used and played the violin himself, but there was never any interest in manufacturing it,” said Olly. The violin is paired with “Catching the Tune,” showing a fiddler holding that actual instrument.
In the portrait of Mount’s sister Ruth, she is shown with her child, Charles. The original dress that the baby is wearing in the painting is on display as well.
Six paintings are paired with current photos of the same locations. Most of these were taken by Olly, including that of Patriot’s Rock in Setauket. The photo of the barn, shown above, was taken several years ago by Diamond. “The doorway of the barn frames the image that Julie took of three kids, in programs,” held at the museum. The barn is the Williamson barn, believed to be the one Mount painted in “Dancing on the Barn Floor,” below, which was moved to the LIM property for preservation. Olly added, “it’s amazing that these places still do survive,” after more than 150 years.
Seniors age 62 and over are invited to visit the museum (free admission) on a normally closed day, Sept. 13, to take a self-guided tour of the exhibit from 10 a.m. to noon as part of the museum’s Senior Tuesday program.
The new Mount exhibit will be used in the museum’s children’s programs as well, including Meet the Museum: A World Without Cars (with a focus on carriages), Meet the Museum: Through an Artist’s Eyes (with a focus on art) and The New Nation: The World of William Sidney Mount (focusing on business and transportation). Detailed teacher’s information is available for download on the museum’s website.
The Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook will present Drawn from Life: Objects and Stories from William Sidney Mount’s Paintings through Dec. 31 in the Art Museum on the hill. The museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, is open Thursdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. For further information, call 631-751-0066 or visit www.longislandmuseum.org.