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William Sidney Mount

'The Mount House', 1854 by William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), The Long Island Museum of American Art, History, & Carriages. Bequest of Ward Melville, 1977.

By Corey Geske

“When Gen. George Washington was passing through Stony Brook . . . Mother was at that time a little school girl, and stood and courtesyed [curtsied] to him while he raised his hat to her salutation — at the same time, her companions ran away.” 

— William Sidney Mount, 1859

American genre painter William Sidney Mount and English born watercolorist Alexander George Milne preserved the earliest known visual and recorded perspectives near their homes of what is today known as the Culper Spy Trail, the route followed in April 1790 by America’s first president George Washington on what was ostensibly a ‘victory tour’ of Long Island. Today, circumstantial evidence begs two questions: did Mount know the victory tour was a ‘cover story’ for thanking Long Island spies who helped win the American Revolution; and did Mount know his grandfather Jonas Hawkins was a spy?

When General Washington acknowledged the salutation of Julia Ann Hawkins (1782-1841), Mount’s future mother, on an April day in Stony Brook, he was, in effect and likely without knowing it, thanking the daughter of one of his spies. About eight years old at the time, Julia exhibited courageous respect while her “companions ran away.” She personified the courage of her father, Major Jonas Hawkins (1752-1817). Although not yet achieving military rank, Hawkins risked his life from December 1778 through mid-August 1779 as a courier in Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, which gathered and relayed intelligence from British occupied Long Island to the General’s headquarters during the war. 

In 1854, when William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) painted his ancestral family home, The Mount House, he chose the location where Julia may have seen Washington and the artist recorded the perspective Washington could have had from his carriage when he doffed his hat to Julia as she curtsied. Mount’s view includes a young girl seated on the roadside wall, a seeming leader of two boys who, in a visual counterpoint to his mother’s runaway companions, direct their attention toward her, while a gentleman wearing a Peter Stuyvesant-type coat surveys the scene from afar, as a distant reminder of the Hawkins family that helped found (1655) the Town of Brookhaven.

A few miles to the south in Smithtown, Alexander George Milne (1801-1865), an émigré from England c. 1834-1836, recorded, on at least four occasions, the route west in the direction Washington traveled, careful to focus on the architectural lines of the Widow Blydenburgh’s Tavern where Washington stopped about an hour after passing the Hawkins’ home. Milne’s expansive view of Smithtown, Long Island was completed in watercolors, c. 1857, three years after The Mount House. The Widow Blydenburgh’s Tavern is seen to the far right. In front of it, Milne detailed a sapling tree. Fenced for protection from roving farmstock, it was one of the nearly sixty ship-mast locust trees planted by Judge J. Lawrence Smith and Joseph Howell along Smithtown’s main thoroughfare, from April 17 to 22, 1855 and 1856, coincidentally, the April anniversaries of Washington’s tour, for the two years following Mount’s 1854 painting.

Milne’s inclusion of a sleigh with two horses halted before the Blydenburgh Tavern was a reminder of the four grey horses drawing Washington’s coach painted with his coat of arms and allegorical scenes of the four seasons by Florentine artist Giovanni Battista Cipriani. The President recorded the day in his diary: “Friday 23d. About 8 Oclock we left Roes [Tavern, East Setauket], and baited the Horses at Smiths Town, at a Widow Blidenbergs [Blydenburgh]–a decent House 10 Miles from Setalkat [Setauket]–thence 15 Miles to Huntington where we dined . . .”

Mother’s courage, grandfather’s daring as Culper Spy, breathe life into Mount’s painting 

Mount’s memory of his mother’s story was prefaced, “Good introduction to my sketch –,” which suggests this was an idea for what appears to have been a painting of Washington that was never done. Mount did, however, represent Washington in a finished work that offers a psychological clue to a conjectural Mount family view linking Washington’s 1790 visit to the espionage ring his grandfather Jonas Hawkins supported. 

‘Great-Grand-Father’s Tale of the Revolution – A Portrait of Rev. Zachariah Greene’, 1852, by William Sidney Mount.
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mount’s 1852 portrait of Great-Grand-Father’s Tale of the Revolution includes a Jean-Antoine Houdon-inspired bust of the General indicated by the extended hand of the 94-year-old friend of Washington, the Rev. Zachariah Greene (1760-1858) of the Setauket Presbyterian Church. 

Mount portrays Greene seated at a table reminiscing to his three great-grandchildren in a pose similar to that of Washington, c. 1789-1796, in The Washington Family (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) by Edward Savage whose work was popularized and even reversed by later artists in an oval format that echoed Mount’s portrait of Greene. The last sitting for the President’s portrait by Savage was April 6, 1790, just before Washington’s tour, with perhaps the very same hat tipped to Julia Hawkins, placed at Washington’s extended hand upon the table where a plan for the new capital city of Washington was studied by the family. Mount translated the General’s hat as Greene’s upturned hat on a nearby chair. 

In his younger days, Greene had helped pull down the statue of King George III in Bowling Green after a reading of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776; then served as a corporal for Massachusetts and Connecticut in the American Revolution, being twice wounded at the battle of White Marsh, near Philadelphia, and at White Plains. He’d later become ‘a soldier of the cross’ and preach at Setauket Presbyterian Church for 52 years, according to Mount’s notes. (WSM 1852 in Frankenstein, 32). Years after Washington’s tour, fragments of his coach were made into walking sticks, possibly like the one held by Rev. Greene. 

‘Washington Family’, c. 1865 after Edward Savage; by Frederic B. Schell; engraved by A.B. Walter. Once hung in Danford’s Inn (buildings from 1870) reception area before renovations. Private Collection.

Mount’s choice of an openbacked bust approximating a mask allows the viewer to see the reflections of the vase beyond it, the whole of which, vaguely reminiscent of anthropomorphic composte portraits by artists of 16th Century Italy, hints not only of the shared reflections of Greene and Washington, but also Mount’s mother. 

Greene bore the same Christian name as Mount’s ancestor Zachariah Hawkins, an early settler of Setauket, thereby offering the artist a parallel perspective of the great-grandchildren around Greene in the personas of ‘Mount’s mother’ relating her memory of Washington to ‘her son’ writing down and sketching her story. 

The mask-like bust of Washington serves as an allegorical reminder of the ‘masks’ that were the cover stories, donned by spies in the field to conceal their intelligence-work. Though likely unknown to Mount, but in keeping with his allusion to the Mount family story, spycraft called ‘masks’ employed by British General Sir Henry Clinton against the Culpers, used a cut paper silhouette to delineate specific words on a piece of correspondence to create a message within an otherwise harmless ‘cover story.’ 

Ironically, in 1856, Mount was asked to paint a mural for the Senate chamber’s eastern staircase in the nation’s Capitol building, picturing the death of Clinton’s spymaster Major John André. Dressed as a civilian behind American lines, André was searched and the documents found wedged in his boot, together with intelligence from the Culper Spy Ring, revealed Benedict Arnold’s plans to betray West Point in 1780. Andre’s capture and fate by hanging as a spy was the daily risk of members of the Culper Spy Ring under British occupation

Two artists’ legacy today

Milne, who provided the earliest known views of Smithtown, rests today with his family in the churchyard of the Hauppauge United Methodist Church (1806), the oldest church building in the township of Smithtown. 

The church and cemetery were recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places (2020); and Milne’s work, once collected by Nelson and Happy Rockefeller, is preserved in private collections. His work is also at the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts in The Horace P. Wright Collection; The Long Island Museum, Stony Brook; and the Smithtown Historical Society.

‘Smithtown, Long Island’, c. 1857 attributed to Alexander George Milne. Courtesy of Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts. The Horace P. Wright Collection. JohnPolakPhotography.com.

Looking west in his painting, not one of the buildings Milne depicts in Smithtown that Washington would have seen, still stands in situ. Washington’s carriage would have travelled around the corner where the Presbyterian church (built in 1827 after the tour) stands today, to head west to Huntington and New York City where the first capital of the new nation was then located.

Farther west on Main Street, the Arthur House (1752), eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, is the only 18th century building in Smithtown, located where it stood when Washington passed it in 1790. It was the home of Mary Woodhull Arthur (1794-1853), daughter of Abraham Woodhull, code name Samuel Culper, Senior, Washington’s chief spy. 

Owned by the Smithtown Central School District, it has been vacant for years, diagonally across from Town Hall. My calls for restoration and a recent request that its name be officially changed to the ‘Mary Woodhull Arthur House,’ to recognize Culper, Senior’s daughter, a true Daughter of the American Revolution, have received no response.

The Blydenburgh Tavern (c. 1688) was demolished in 1907; and to the near left of it in Milne’s view, the two-story Epenetus Smith Tavern was moved twice, the first time thanks to the preservation efforts of Mary Miller, mother of Captain James Ely Miller (1883-1918), the first American aviator killed in combat over France in World War I. In 2017, Captain Miller posthumously received the first Distinguished Flying Cross presented to a WWI recipient. The Miller Home (built before 1873), once located across from the Smith Tavern, was demolished in the 1960s.

In 2017, the North Shore Promotion Alliance and The Ward Melville Heritage Organization were instrumental in getting Spy Trail signs installed, commemorating the importance of the Culper Ring along the route of Washington’s tour. A focal point on that trail, the William Sidney Mount House is a National Historic Landmark. The scene is set for Mount’s painting that never was.

Mount’s idea for a work commemorating Washington’s 1790 tour and the courage of Julia Hawkins would be an excellent reason for North Shore artists to open their sketchbooks and step up to their easels in a salute to the traditional autumnal ‘Spy Days’ sponsored by the Three Village Historical Society, Tri-Spy Tours, The Long Island Museum and The Ward Melville Heritage Organization.

About the author: Independent Historian Corey Geske of Smithtown was researching a book on Alexander George Milne when area historic preservation became a priority following demolition (2016) of the Jonas Hawkins, Jr. home (before 1858) called Sedgemere at Head of the Harbor, Town of Smithtown. In 2016, she proposed recognition of the New York Avenue School as an historic structure and restoration of the Arthur House in situ, proposing their inclusion in a National Register Historic District in downtown Smithtown. She prepared the report resulting in the determination of the Smithtown Bull as Eligible for the National Register (2018); wrote the nomination for the Byzantine Catholic Church (1929) by McGill and Hamlin, and its Rectory, the former Fred Wagner Residence (1912) by Gustav Stickley, that were placed on the National Register (2019); and worked with church Trustees to nominate the Hauppauge United Methodist Church and Cemetery to the National Register (2020).

 

The Mount House by William Sidney Mount, 1854

By Melissa Arnold

Looking at a painting is like a window to another time — the world is frozen, just as the artist remembers it. But of course, nothing stays the same in real life, and the scenes depicted in paintings will often change as well.

With this in mind, Joshua Ruff of the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook had an interesting idea: What if they tried to return to the scenes in some of the museum’s paintings to see what they look like now?

The Mount House in Stony Brook as it stands today.

The result is Twin Peeks: Scenes Seen Twice, Paintings and Photographs, an exhibit of works from the museum’s permanent collection laid side-by-side with recent photos of their locales. The unique show opens in the Art Museum’s Main Gallery on March 19. 

Pursuing this idea was the beginning of a months-long adventure for Ruff, Deputy Director, Director of Collections and Interpretations at the LIM and curator for the exhibit. After choosing more than 60 paintings to include in the show, including artwork from the museum’s coveted William Sidney Mount collection, he had to figure out what — or where — the artists were painting.

The Mount House by William Sidney Mount, 1854

“Artists didn’t leave behind GPS coordinates for their work,” he joked. “There are so many scenes in our collection that are real places, but it’s not always conveyed in the title exactly where it is. Landscapes can change dramatically. We wanted to try to get as close as we could to the vantage point of the original painting, while thinking about how artists tell a story of place.”

Using maps from the approximate time period of each piece, Google’s street view feature and some research savvy, Ruff set out with his family and a camera to get the job done. It was far from easy, though — some of the locations are now on private property, inaccessible or unidentifiable. Other abstract or impressionist pieces can offer a vague sense of place without the details required to pinpoint it. Still, he did the best he could.

“We have several examples of historical photographs of certain locations, but more than 90 percent of the photographs were speculative on our part. In some cases, we may not ever be able to crack the code of where the actual spot was,” Ruff explained.

In some cases, he had to enlist the help of some friends. The museum’s conservator, Alexander Katlan, lives part-time in New England and was able to take photos to accompany two paintings by William Trost Richards. And some of the staff at the Freeport Memorial Public Library took to the water to find a match for Charles Henry Miller’s 1885 painting, “Freeport Oyster Houses.”

The site of the Setauket Rubber Factory today at the corner of Route 25A and South Jersey Avenue.

“The oyster industry thrived in Freeport in the 1800s, and our library archives include many photographs from that time, so I knew exactly where we needed to go,” said librarian Regina Feeney. 

To get the right angle for the photo, the team would need a boat. They talked with the owner of a Freeport marina in search of a way to get down the Freeport River, and were ultimately connected with bayman Danny Miller. It was a chilly November day when they set sail, but armed with old maps and a sense of humor, they got the job done. The photo was taken by Jason Velarde.

The Setauket Rubber Factory by Edward Lange;

“I really enjoy now-and-then exhibits because it gives people perspective about how things have changed over time,” Feeney said. “We were happy to make a contribution, and it was fun getting out of the building and enjoying some time on the water together. We had quite the adventure.”

The exhibit is evenly divided among geographic areas, with one third focusing on the East End, one third on the middle Island, and one third on Nassau County, New York City and New England. The paintings feature a range of medium as well, from watercolor to oil and acrylic, and span in time from the 1830s through the 1970s.

“Seeing this collection of paintings really drives home the sense of how the area has evolved — some of the subjects, like the Setauket rubber factory, are gone now. Other areas that were quiet and natural are more developed now. I hope it will be enjoyable for people of all ages to reflect on the past and consider what the future will hold,” Ruff said.

In conjunction with Twin Peeks the Victoria Costigan Gallery in the Art Museum will be home to “Artists Abroad,” a mini exhibit focused on travel and foreign landscapes.

The museum’s collection includes a small, yet compelling group of works by artists who traveled abroad between the 1860s and 1960s. American artists have always been drawn to European art and landscapes. They visited museums and copied famous works of art, and roamed cities and the countryside to paint and sketch scenes of daily life and picturesque views. Sketches in ink and watercolor quickly documented form and color, with some becoming inspiration for future works in oil. 

“Generally when we do an exhibit, the focus is on America or on Long Island. But the works in this exhibit were created abroad and don’t get as many opportunities for exhibition,” said curator Jonathan Olly. “You’ll get to see things you wouldn’t usually get to see here, from the Italian countryside to an Azorian mountain or Cannes as seen from the harbor — it shifts the lens to other places and perspectives.”

“Both of these exhibits are about travel in a time where we haven’t really been able to travel — we’re all a little tired of being inside, and this celebrates the joy of going outside and exploring in a safe way,” said Ruff.

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The Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook presents Twin Peeks: Scenes Seen Twice, Paintings and Photographs and Artists Abroad when the museum reopens for the season March 19. The exhibits run through Aug. 1. Visitors are also welcome to explore the Carriage Museum; however the History Museum will remain closed. 

Hours are Friday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Physical distancing will be required and masks are mandatory. The LIM follows CDC-prescribed cleaning protocols for all buildings. Admission is $10 adults, $7 seniors, $5 students, children under six free. Tickets are available at the Carriage Museum entrance, credit cards only please; pre-registration is not required. For more information, visit longislandmuseum.org.

‘Eel Spearing at Setauket,’ 1845, by William Sidney Mount

The Three Village Historical Society lecture series hosts prominent and emerging historians, authors, genealogists, archeologists and storytellers from around the nation and presents topics related to local history, heritage conservation, social justice, art history, and more. For decades, TVHS public programming has provided a stimulating environment for the exploration of history and ideas that permeate the culture and community of the Three Village area, and beyond.

In early 2020, when the world went on “lock-down”, TVHS shifted gears and began hosting this treasured event virtually via Zoom on a monthly basis and the Society will continue to do so for 2021. Unless otherwise noted, all lectures begin at 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time and will be held on Zoom and moderated by Mari Irizarry, TVHS Creative Services Director. The Virtual Lecture Series is open to public, with a $5 general admission suggested donation and is free for TVHS members. Registration is required at www.tvhs.org/lecture-series.

February 22nd

Guest Speaker: Louise Cella Caruso

William Sidney Mount: His Life and His Work

March 15th

Guest Speaker: Selene Castrovilla

Founding Mothers

April 19th

Guest Speaker: Kristen Nyitray

History of Stony Brook University

May 17th

Guest Speaker: Bill Bleyer

Culper Spy Ring and Long Island Revolutionary War Sites

Book: “George Washington’s Long Island Spy Ring: A History and Tour Guide.”

June 21st

Guest Speaker: Steve Drielak

The Alice Parsons’ Kidnapping: Long Island’s History Unsolved Mystery

July 19th

Guest Speaker: Rhoda Miller

Exploring Long Island’s Jewish History

August 16th

Guest Speaker: Darren St. George, Preservation Long Island

Jupiter Hammon Project: Confronting Slavery at Preservation Long Island’s Joseph Lloyd Manor

September 20th

Guest Speaker: Chris Matthews

A Struggle For Heritage: Archaeology and Civil Rights in Long Island Community

October 18th

Guest Speaker: Tara Rider

The Devil in New York: The Withcraft Trial of Goody Garlick

November 15th

Guest Speaker: Jeff Richman

Green-Wood Cemetery’s Civil War Project

December 14th

Frank Turano

Chicken Hill: A Community Lost to Time

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The Three Village Historical Society (TVHS), a non-profit 501(c)(3) founded in 1964 by community members, exists to educate the public about our rich cultural heritage as well as foster and preserve local history. TVHS offers museum exhibits, events, programs, archives, and other outreach initiatives to inform and enrich the public’s interest in and understanding of the vibrant past of the Three Village area along the north shore in Suffolk County, Long Island

'Fair Exchange, No Robbery', 1865, by William Sidney Mount

By Tara Ebrahimian

William Sidney Mount was an artist whose Long Island heritage was integral to his identity and his art. Most famous for his portrayals of local and natural life, Mount’s initial interest in historical paintings and his commissions for death portraiture led him to create the work that would become his legacy. What Mount witnessed and experienced determined how he rendered the realm he could control: his art.

He was born in Setauket on November 26, 1807. His parents, Julia Ann Hawkins and Thomas Shephard Mount, had a farm and also ran a store and tavern on the edge of the village green. Interested in artistic endeavors from a young age, with his family’s support, he set out to pursue that goal.

Following his father’s death in 1814, his mother returned to his grandfather’s farm in Stony Brook and Mount lived for a time with his maternal aunt and uncle, Letty and Micah Hawkins, in New York City. Micah was a playwright, composer, and musician, who encouraged Mount’s interest in music. In 1815, Mount returned to Long Island, living in his grandfather’s home until returning to Manhattan where he apprenticed to his brother Henry as a sign maker. It was during this period that Mount really began to develop his interest in painting.

‘Returning from the Orchard’, 1862, by William Sidney Mount

With Henry’s encouragement, Mount attended the American Academy of the Fine Arts exhibition at City Hall Park in 1825. This event introduced Mount to a genre of art he had not yet enjoyed: history painting. Rather than pursue a formal art education or seek tutelage from a master, Mount continued to work for his brother while teaching himself. Henry was now business partners with a painter named William Inslee, who owned a collection of prints by British artist William Hogarth, who specialized in history painting. Moved by his art as well as that of another British artist, Benjamin West, Mount copied Hogarth’s prints in order to practice his craft.

History painting is characterized by its content instead of its artistic method. This form generally depicts an instance in a narrative story rather than a specific, fixed subject such as a portrait. Until the 19th century, history painting was considered the most prestigious type of Western painting. Then, as artists pushed back against the rigid parameters of academic art standards, it became a medium mainly regarded in that milieu. This genre encompassed works that portrayed religious scenes, and Mount’s most popular history painting is of this nature.

Upon the recommendation of family friend Martin E. Thompson, Mount enrolled in the National Academy of Design, which Thompson had cofounded. At the institution Mount was able to explore his appreciation for the Grand Manner, an idealized aestheticism that drew from classicism and the art of the high Renaissance. Initially it specifically referred to history painting, but came to include portraiture. The term Grand Manner was also used by British artists and critics to describe art that incorporated visual metaphors to represent noble characteristics.

In this manner, Mount created historical paintings that were very well received. He selected scenes from classical texts that focused on topics like near-death experiences, death, and resurrection. Mount’s first notable oil painting, Christ Raising the Daughter of Jairus (1828) caused a stir when it was exhibited at the National Academy of Design; the council was stunned that a young artist with little formal instruction could produce such a work. Mount, who was one of the school’s first students, was elected an associate member in 1831.

‘Bargaining for a Horse’, 1835 by William Sidney Mount

He returned to Setauket the next year, but continued to send work to be exhibited in New York City. Mount’s history paintings were admired and respected, but they were not, apparently, particularly profitable. Perhaps impacted by the shifting opinions about historical paintings, Mount suffered a setback all too familiar to artists: his work did not sell well enough for him to make a living. So, he shifted his focus to portraiture. His first portrait subjects were easily persuaded: he painted himself and close relatives.

Portraits provided a somewhat steadier income. Among his early patrons were the Weeks, Mils, Wells, and Strong families. Mount continued to improve his technique and was happy to be back on Long Island. “I found that portraits improved my colouring, and for pleasurable practice in that department I retired into the country to paint the mugs of Long Island Yeomanry.” Mount was less enamored with the other aspect of his business: death portraiture.

Mourning portraits were paintings of the recently deceased. Frequently the subjects were shown as though they were alive, and symbolic details, like bodies of water and flowers, were used to indicate that they were not. Arguably a bit morbid, their existence was emotional: they were usually commissioned by the departed’s loved ones. It could be among the only renderings/images that existed of the recently dead.

Mount worked on commission and he did not enjoy the work, which was fraught and could be gruesome. He could be summoned to someone’s wake or deathbed to make sketches or take notes for the upcoming portrait. Once he was called to the scene of an accident to paint the likeness of a man who had been run over by a wagon. The final product did not reflect the cause and nature of the subject’s death.

The art Mount created enveloped aspects of genres he had explored earlier in his career. These experiences helped him establish the style for which he would become best known. He combined the narrative elements of the history paintings with the human interest element of the death portraiture. Without this background, he may not have been inspired to create the art that became his job and his joy.

Genre paintings, art that illustrates scenes of everyday life, became the most renowned selections of his oeuvre. Unlike his previous work, this type of art is distinguished from history paintings and portraits in that the subjects have no distinctive identities. His first foray into this type of painting, The Rustic Dance, was immediately successful and encouraged him to further explore the medium. As Mount noted in his journal, “Ideas can be found in everything if the poet, sculptor and painter can pick them out.” He captured snippets of everyday life and frequently imbued them with subtle or more overt themes of social commentary.

‘Bar-Room Scene’, 1835, by William Sidney Mount

Motivated by the natural environment and his neighbors, Mount addressed moral issues, including economic standing and disparities as well as the implied status of Black people in the area. For example, in Bar-Room Scene (1835), Mount portrays patrons in a tavern. In the foreground a presumably inebriated man in tattered clothing is encouraged to dance by three  seated men who are clearly of a higher economic class. A boy, who is standing, gazes upon him in apparent wonderment.

In the back corner, there is a young Black man standing. He is also entertained by the dancer’s antics, but he is alone, separate from the group of other men. As a free Black man, he is allowed to visit the tavern, but he remains apart from the other visitors. Through this isolation, Mount indicates that the man is not fully able to participate in the community. The topics represented in this painting were recurring in his art.

Mount’s return to the Three Villages marked a shift in the nature of his work. His exploration of slavery, racial dynamics, and rustic vignettes offer indelible insight into 19th century life on Long Island. His creative expression was a culmination of previous artistic enterprises, driven by both his own passion and financial necessity. Mount continued to paint, integrating other interests, such as music, into his art. He never married or had children and died of pneumonia on November 18,1868, at his brother Robert’s house in Setauket.

Author Tara Ebrahimian is the Education Coordinator at the Three Village Historical Society in Setauket. This article originally appeared on the historical society’s website and is reprinted with permission.

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The March 22, 1840, letter from Robert Nelson Mount to his brother William Sidney Mount. No envelope was used, the letter was folded and sealed with a wax seal. Stamps were not used at this time. The postmaster signed the letter with his initials for the fee in the upper right corner of the folded letter. From the collection of Beverly and Barbara Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

How sweet the silent backward tracings!

The wanderings as in dreams — the meditation of old times resumed — their loves, joys, persons, voyages.

— Walt Whitman, “Memories”

The Mounts of Stony Brook were a close family throughout their lives. The children of Julia Hawkins Mount — Henry Smith, Shepard Alonzo, Robert Nelson, William Sidney and Ruth Hawkins — kept in contact with each other even when they were many miles apart pursuing their careers. There was probably no period when this closeness was more evident than during 1840 and 1841.

On Jan. 22, 1840, their grandmother, Ruth Mills, widow of Major Jonas Hawkins and mother of Julia Mount, died at the family home in Stony Brook. Her death at the age of 91 seemed to have strongly affected William Sidney Mount. According to his biographer, Edward P. Buffet:

“After the brilliant successes of the past few years (prior to 1840) Mount now suffered a slight reaction in the acclaim of his exhibits at the National Academy. His pictures, The Disappointed Bachelor, Boy Hoeing Corn and The Blackberry Girls, all fell short of his high-water mark of merit.”

Robert Nelson Mount also felt deeply the death of his grandmother. During 1840 and 1841 he was still in Georgia teaching dancing at various towns. He had left the Three Village area in October 1837, traveling south to take a job at a school. His wife, Mary, remained in Setauket, and he wrote often to her and to members of his family. In a letter to his brother William Sidney written from Macon, Georgia, March 22, 1840, he wrote:

“The two letters I have previously received from you contained intelligence of a serious nature. The last made known to me the death of our excellent grandmother. I had great hopes that I should see her again, but now those hopes are dispelled . . . we shall behold her no more. Yet in our minds she will live. Her good deeds we will not forget. Years hence we will lead to her grave the children that are yet unborn; and to them we will speak of her great kindness, and of her many virtues.”

In the same letter Robert Nelson spoke of his eldest brother Henry, a well-known artist in his own right who did not limit his talents to art alone. He wrote:

“The music you sent me I am highly pleased with . . . The two cotillions composed by brother Henry I like much, especially the 3rd No. which I think will hold place with the best cotillions of the day. I shall endeavour to arrange such a figure to it as it merits.”

On Jan. 10 of the following year, 1841, at the age of 38, Henry Smith Mount died after a long battle with tuberculosis. In his biography of the Mounts, Benjamin Franklin Thompson wrote about Henry:

“His private character was of the most unexceptionable kind — his temper mild and amiable, and in all the relations of life scrupulously honest, faithful, and affectionate. The death of such a man, under such circumstances, was generally and deeply regretted, both by his family and a large circle of acquaintances.”

Robert Nelson wrote of his brother Henry in a letter to William Sidney from Monticello, Georgia, dated March 4, 1841:

“I have received two letters from you. The last dated the 5th of February contained a delightful set of cotillions from the collection of Mr. Matherson. At first I found the 3rd and 4th numbers of those cotillions somewhat difficult to perform; but having practiced them a great deal, I am now able to run through them with tolerable ease. I thank you for having sent them to me at the time you did . . . Music that I brought from home with me, — duets, — every leaf of which, as I turn them over, reminds me of our departed brother Henry. I think how often we have tuned our instruments and played those airs together; — then they served to cheer and enliven my feelings. Now when I attempt to play them alone, I fancy I can still hear his accompaniment; — a gloom comes over my spirits . . . The remembrance of him I will ever cherish; — The music he gave me I will treasure up with a misers care. — The marks that his pencil has made upon its pages, I will never efface.”

On Nov. 25, 1841, Julia Hawkins Mount, mother of the talented brothers, died at the age of 59. Shepard wrote home to William Sidney his feelings as their mother lay near death:

“Yesterday, Elizabeth and myself wrote mother and sister Mary a long letter — took it to the post-office where we received yours with the melancholy information that our dear mother is rapidly passing away. The improvement in my health is principally owing to my being of late removed from any exciting scenes whatever, for I have shunned all such here. The world seems to be willing to think favorably of us as a family of children. — If we deserve to be thus favorably considered, how much are we indebted to our mother for its attainment. — Of late years she has had but little intercourse with the world, living almost exclusively for the well-being, and respectability of her favored children. — Mingled with her worldly sorrows she has had the consolation to witness our gratitude in the remembrance of her many virtues . . . I have been so long unemployed in painting, save upon some trifling subject which I cannot turn to immediate account, that I feel it my duty to paint if possible 2 or 3 portraits before coming home — for even amid the sorrows and vicissitudes of the world we must prepare to live on and worry through much that goes against the heart. — As this time the love of art vanishes, but the love of those who depend upon me for the comforts of life, point out the path I must tread. I have no positive engagements in the city, and should I come home at this time, I fear it would be a long while before I could feel able or composed enough to pursue my profession. Your affectionate brother — S.A. Mount.”

The Long Island Museum exhibit Walt Whitman’s Arcadia: Long Island Through the Eyes of a Poet & Painters presents chosen passages from Whitman’s writings alongside more than 20 paintings by William Sidney Mount, John F. Kensett, Lemuel Wiles and more. The stunning wooded landscapes, rustic scenery and rugged shoreline that so captivated Whitman was equally fascinating to artists from across the region.

On Saturday, July 20, from 2 to 4 p.m., the Long Island Museum, in collaboration with Red Skies Music Ensemble will present Walt Whitman, William Sidney Mount & the Sounds of the 19th Century. This research-based program weaves together an engaging narrative with live musical performance, theatrical cameos and large screen images to explore Whitman and Mount’s interconnected biographies and how music was an essential part of their creative lives. Visit www.longislandmuseum.org for details.

Beverly C. Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

In celebration of its 80th anniversary, The Long Island Museum hosted a Mount House Summer Soirée at the Hawkins-Mount House in Stony Brook on June 28. The Americana-themed party featured signature cocktails dinner, live music and tours of artist William Sidney Mount’s childhood home, which had been closed to the public for three decades. 

Photos by Karen Romanelli

‘The Mount House,’ 1854, by William Sidney Mount. Photo from LIM

The Long Island Museum is turning 80 this year, and the celebration kicks off on Friday, June 28 with a Summer Soirée at the Hawkins-Mount House on North Country Road in Stony Brook from 6 to 9 p.m. 

Held rain or shine, the Americana-themed party will feature signature cocktails, dinner catered by Villa Sorrento, live music by Johnny Cuomo and Brian Chabza, tours of William Sidney Mount’s boyhood home and a presentation of W.S. Mount and the Mount/Hawkins families with Joshua Ruff, deputy director, director of Collections & Interpretation at the LIM. 

Guests are invited to wear their summer whites (or reds or blues). Parking is available at the Long Island Museum with shuttle service to and from the Mount House.

“The Mount House has been closed from the general public for three decades! This is such an exciting opportunity to be the first group of museum supporters through the door. We are thrilled with this new enhancement to the museum’s programming,” said LIM’s executive director, Neil Watson.

“It’s an exciting time for The Long Island Museum,” added Barbara Gottfried, member of the LIM board of trustees and co-chair of the 80th Anniversary Events Committee.“Through exhibitions, programs and events, the museum offers the community a broad range of cultural and learning experiences. I’m proud and pleased to join in the celebration of their milestone year.”

The Long Island Museum’s 80th anniversary event series continues on July 18 with Puttin’ on the Ritz, featuring dinner in the Carriage Museum and an outdoor concert with Tom Manuel and The Jazz Loft All Stars. The final event in the series is Behind the Runway, featuring dinner in the Cowles Gallery, a discussion by a noted fashion historian and guided tours of the Mary & Philip Hulitar Textile Collection. 

Tickets for each event is $150 per person, $250 per couple. Guests may purchase tickets for all three events for $400 per person, $700 per couple. For reservations, call 631-751-0066, ext. 247 or visit www.longislandmuseum.org/events.

‘Dance of the Haymakers’ by William Sydney Mount, 1845

By Heidi Sutton

Now through Sept. 3, The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook presents a delightful treat: a special exhibit titled Perfect Harmony: The Musical Life and Art of William Sidney Mount.

William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) was a renowned artist best known for his genre paintings, although he also painted landscapes and portraits. Born in Setauket, Mount lived in Stony Brook and painted many local scenes. A man of many talents, Mount was also a musician (he played the fiddle and fife), composer and inventor, designing a hollow-back violin that he named the Cradle of Harmony.

‘The Banjo Player,’ 1856, by William Sidney Mount, oil on canvas, gift of Ward and Dorothy Melville. Image from LIM

So many of Mount’s paintings incorporate music into the scene, whether it is dancing or playing a musical instrument so it was only natural to “connect his two major passions in life,” according to the exhibit’s curator, Joshua Ruff, director of collections and interpretations and chief curator at The LIM.

Currently on view in the Victoria V. Costigan Gallery in the Art Museum on the hill, the fascinating exhibit links Mount’s music and art with more than 20 oil paintings, pencil drawings, musical instruments, original compositions and more.

Of course, it is the incredible oil paintings, drawn from the museum’s unsurpassed collection, that take center stage. “Catching the Tune,” “Dancing on the Barn Floor,” “Just in Tune” and the famous “Dance of the Haymakers,” among others, are displayed in all their glory.

The portraits, some of which are over 160 years old, are as colorful and vibrant as ever. “Both William and his brother, Shepard Alonzo Mount, were really great at painting eyes and giving one the feeling like they are sitting in a room across from you,” commented Ruff, who has a fondness for “The Banjo Player.”

‘Just in Tune,’ 1849, oil on canvas, by William Sidney Mount, gift of Ward and Dorothy Melville. Image from LIM

Situated toward the center of the room is a unique music stand that Mount illustrated with sheet music of early American folk tunes including “Dearest Ellen” and a patriotic Fourth of July song. “These musical pieces were popular in the 19th century,” explained Ruff during a recent tour. The stand was designed to accommodate four musicians at a time and Ruff said that Mount most likely used it. “I would be surprised if he didn’t,” said the curator.

Also on display are some of Mount’s compositions including “In the Cars on the Long Island Railroad” and “The Musings of an Old Bachelor,” as well as musical instruments — a tin whistle, hornpipe, tuning fork — which belonged to the Mount family. A piano owned by Mount’s uncle Micah Hawkins sits in the corner. A General Store owner at Catherine’s Market in lower Manhattan, Hawkins composed music and to some extent was an influence to Mount “but his whole family was passionate about music,” said Ruff.

Along with Mount’s personal violin and initialed case, three prototypes of Mount’s Cradle of Harmony are also on view. “It’s nice that we were able to have all three examples of the violin that he designed and we have the 1852 patent design drawing for the first one,” the curator said.

In the background, a video plays several of Mount’s compositions, initially recorded by violinist Gilbert Ross for the Smithsonian in 1976 on its own Cradle of Harmony, tying the exhibit together perfectly.

“It is amazing how Mount was just able to bring music and art together and combine it. Until you have all [these items] gathered in a gallery you don’t necessarily appreciate just how much he was setting a violin down and picking up a paintbrush,” reflected Ruff. “Where one started and one finished is not always clear … nor should it be. It was just this continuing, constant influence and important part of his life.”

Related programs

Art & Music lecture

The Atelier at Flowerfield, 2 Flowerfield, St. James will present a lecture on the Perfect Harmony exhibit with guest speaker, curator Joshua Ruff, on Thursday, April 12 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in Atelier Hall featuring an early American fiddle performance by Director Kevin McEvoy. Suggested donation is $10. For more information, call 631-250-9009.

Mount tribute concert

On Saturday, April 14, The LIM will host a concert by the Manhattan-based Red Skies Music Ensemble at 2 p.m. The group will bring Mount’s music and art to life through visual imagery and theatrical interpretation of songs from the artist’s own collection. One of the musicians will play Mount’s Cradle of Harmony. Followed by a Q&A. Admission is $20 adults, $18 seniors, $15 members and students. To register, call 631-751-0066, ext. 212.

Hands-On Art

Students in grades K through 4 can take part in an after school program, Hands-On Art, on Thursday, May 3 from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. by visiting the Perfect Harmony exhibit and taking inspiration from William Sidney Mount to combine music and art. $10 per child. To register, call 631-751-0066, ext. 212.

The Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook will present Perfect Harmony: The Musical Life and Art of William Sidney Mount through Sept. 3. The museum is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 adults, $7 seniors, $5 students, children 5 and under free. For further information, call 631-751-0066 or visit www.longislandmuseum.org.

 

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‘The Slave’s Grave,’ oil on panel, by Shepard Alonzo Mount. Image from The Long Island Museum

By Beverly C. Tyler

William Sidney Mount, Setauket and Stony Brook’s famous genre artist, was a keen observer of nature and human nature, and he enjoyed traveling around Long Island, especially his native villages of Stony Brook and Setauket. In 1853, Mount wrote to his friend Chauncey Marvin Cady  about walking through a former slave burial ground on the family farm and noticing a beautifully carved gravestone. It is believed the graveyard is located behind the Hawkins-Mount house at Stony Brook Road and Route 25A.

“(I) was so much struck with the sublimity and originality of one of the monuments to a distinguished fiddler, and as my late Uncle Micah Hawkins wrote the epitaph and placed the stone to the old Negro’s memory, and as you are an advocate for musical genius, I felt it my duty to send you a copy. I have sat by Anthony when I was a child, to hear him play his jigs and hornpipes. He was a master in that way, and acted well his part. Yours, very truly Wm. S. Mount.”

The gravestone of Anthony Clapp, now preserved in the collection of The Long Island Museum. Image from The Long Island Museum

William Sidney was not the only Mount who appreciated the gravestones in the “former slave burial ground.” In The Long Island Museum collection is an unsigned painting attributed to his brother Shepard Alonzo Mount that features two gravestones standing as silent sentinels in an otherwise bucolic scene — one the gravestone of Anthony Hannibal Clapp.

Kate Strong, a Long Island historian, and great-great-granddaughter of Anna Smith Strong, wrote in the May 1954 issue of the Long Island Forum, “Though William S. Mount … was a little boy when Tony died, he never forgot the Negro and kept the fiddle (engraved on his gravestone) fresh painted as long as he lived. … There it stood until a few years ago when it was removed for safekeeping.”

The epitaph on the tombstone for Clapp was composed by Micah Hawkins, uncle of William Sidney and composer of “The Saw-Mill, or a Yankee Trick,” America’s first performed operetta. The stone was carved by Phineas Hill, a stone carver from Huntington. The edited copy from The Long Island Museum Art Collection reads: “Entirely tone less; honor and shame from no condition rise — Act well thy part, there all the honor lies. Anthony Hannibal Clapp.

Born at Horseneck, Connecticut, 14 July 1749 — Came to Setauket in 1779 — Here sojourning until he died 12, Oct. 1816. … Upon the violin, few play’d as Toney play’d, his artless music was a language universal, and its effect most irresistible! Ay, and was he not of Setauket’s Dancing-steps-a physiognomist, indeed he was. Nor old nor young, of either sex, stood on the floor to jig it, but he knew the gait. Peculiar to their hobby, and unasked, plac’d best foot foremost for them, by his fiddle. This emblamatic lachrymatory, and cenotaph’s the grateful tribute of a few who know his worth.”

Beverly C. Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

Above, a portrait of Leonard A. Zierden, age 4, March 1900, with his Jack Russell Terrier (Star Studio, Johnsonburg, PA) will be on view at The LIM through Dec. 31.

By Jill Webb

As the dog days of summer are brought in with the August heat, The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook will also put dogs in the spotlight. Starting Aug. 11, the Art Museum on the hill will feature an exhibit titled Dog Days: Portraits of Man’s Best Friend. The exhibit’s collection will focus on works from the 1840s to the 1960s featuring dogs.

Ernest BJ Zierden, age 7, March 1900, with his Jack Russell Terrier (JYL Photo Studio, Johnsonburg, PA)

“This gallery tends to be devoted to changing exhibits drawn from our permanent collection,” Assistant Curator Jonathan Olly said of the room currently preparing for the Dog Days exhibit. The exhibit will open tomorrow, Aug. 11, and run through Dec. 31.

Beneath the gallery resides the vault storing the museum’s art collection. “It’s kind of a continuing challenge of coming up with new ways to look at the collection and put together themes,” Olly said.

Olly got the idea to draw together works highlighting dogs after gaining inspiration from a cat-centric exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts. Realizing the fact that Long Islanders love their dogs led him to curate the Dog Days exhibit. “When most people were living on a farm, farms had dogs because they were pets but they’re also practical. They could catch pests, they could guard the homestead from intruders,” he said.

There are about 20 major works in the gallery, from watercolor and oil painting to photographs. There will also be a display case featuring smaller objects such as dog show tags, ribbons from the North Shore Kennel Club in St. James, postcards that have advertising containing dogs, ornaments that were pinned on horse wagons leather straps and even a pair of slippers with dog’s faces embroidered on them.

William Sidney Mount’s Esqimaux Dog, 1859

Famous artists William Sidney Mount and William Moore Davis have pieces on display. Mount was a 19th-century genre and portrait painter who lived in Setauket and Stony Brook. The museum has the largest collection of his works. Davis, a friend of Mount’s, resided in Port Jefferson and is known for his landscape paintings.

“They are the two artists that are most strongly represented in the show. That’s because they were local people and they both depicted scenes of regular people on Long Island at work, at play, at rest — and often dogs were part of the scene,” Olly said.

The interesting part of the gallery is that in most of the works the dogs are not the most prominent part of the piece. Often, they were just another component in the scene, which draws a comparison to how they were (and are) just another part of Long Islander’s lives.

“A lot of the things that we’re working with in here tend to be things that have come into the collection not because they’re dog-related, but the fact they have dogs is almost accidental,” Olly said.

This is the case in Alexander Kruse’s 1969 painting “Bicycle Parking Fire Island,” which is the most current piece in the exhibit. “He didn’t paint it because of the dog, but he just happened to include a dog,” Olly said.

One of the most interesting pieces featured, according to Olly, is a painting illustrating a scene of the Meadow Brook Hounds. Fox hunting was a popular sport for Long Island’s elite in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There were three main fox hunting organizations on Long Island during this time: The Meadow Brook Hounds (1881-1971), Suffolk Hounds (1902-1942) and Smithtown Hunt (1900-present).

The painting of the Meadow Brook Hounds is particularly interesting because it’s one of the few where the dogs are a major part of the scene. The painting is accompanied by a label that not only names important figures portrayed in the piece, like Theodore Roosevelt, but also credits the dog’s names. “The dogs are actually getting equal billing with the people,” Olly said.

In conjunction with the Dog Days exhibition, The Long Island Museum will present its third Summer Thursday event on Aug. 17 from 6 to 8 p.m. with a concert by the Cuomo Family Band. Visitors are encouraged to pack a picnic dinner and bring chairs or blankets. Admission to the grounds and exhibit is free.

Shelter dogs from Last Chance Animal Rescue will be available for adoption and The Middle Country Public Library’s Mutt Club, which partners with animal rescue organizations, will be collecting donations for shelter pets including pet food, toys, treats, collars, cat litter, toys, cleaning supplies and peanut butter.

Dog Days: Portraits of Man’s Best Friend is a chance for North Shore residents to see the beloved pets in an artistic light. Stop by the gallery to see just how man’s best friend has been captured over the past centuries on Long Island.

The Long Island Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate, is located at 1200 Route 25A in Stony Brook. Regular museum hours are Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call 631-751-0066 or visit www.longislandmuseum.org.