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William Sidney Mount

‘Catching Rabbits,’ 1839 oil painting by William Sidney Mount. Image from LIM

The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook bid bon voyage to William Sidney Mount’s painting, “Catching Rabbits” recently. The politically themed painting is on loan to the Dixon Gallery & Gardens in Memphis, Tenn., through Jan. 15 as part of a new exhibition titled Wild Spaces, Open Seasons: Hunting and Fishing in American Art, which celebrates artists’ captivation with hunting and fishing.

As we are bombarded with political messages in this historically significant presidential election, we can stop and examine the ironically parallel politics of Mount’s day depicted in his painting.

While the painting at first appears to be the triumphant illustration of two boys successfully trapping game, the underlying subject of “Catching Rabbits” is the contest between Democrats and Whigs in the 1840 presidential election. The boys in the painting represent the Whig Party “trapping” votes, while the rabbit signifies the Democratic Party, weakened by internal division and subjected to desertion by its membership. Mount’s imagery proved so apt that the Democrats adopted the concept of the trap for their campaign broadsides, which cautioned against being lured and caught by the Whigs.

A view of the Setauket Presbyterian Cemetery. Photo by Susan Nolan

By Heidi Sutton

‘How glorious it is to paint in the open fields, to hear the birds singing around you, to draw in the fresh air – how thankful it makes one.’William Sidney Mount, May 1848

The cooler weather, shorter days and leaves of autumn reds, oranges and gold signal the arrival of the Three Village Historical Society’s annual Spirits Tour. Now in its 22nd year, this year’s event, with the theme “William Sidney Mount: Family, Friends & Ideas,” will be held on Saturday, Oct. 22 with tours starting at 5 p.m.

‘Self-Portrait,’ oil on canvas, 1832 by William Sidney Mount. File photo
‘Self-Portrait,’ oil on canvas, 1832 by William Sidney Mount. File photo

Born in Setauket in 1807, William Sidney Mount was an incredible artist best known for his genre paintings (portraits and scenes from everyday life) of Long Island, most notably “Dance of the Haymakers,” (1845) “Farmers Nooning” (1836) and “Dancing on the Barn Floor” (1831). His paintings often commented on American social and political issues and by the middle of the nineteenth century, he was one of the most renowned artists in America. He is buried at the Setauket Presbyterian Church across from the Village Green. The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook boasts the largest collection of Mount’s paintings, thanks to gifts by philanthropists Ward and Dorothy Melville, along with his diaries.

Guided walking tours will lead guests through the historic cemeteries of the Setauket Presbyterian Church and the Caroline Church of Brookhaven. The “spirit” of William Sidney Mount with his family and friends will greet visitors along the way. Actors in period costumes supplied by Antiques Costume & Prop Rental by Nan Guzzetta will play the parts of Mount’s mother, brothers Henry and Shepard, his sister Ruth along with people who commissioned paintings from him, including Lumen Reed, his principal sponsor in New York. Reed would eventually donate his collection of the artist’s paintings to the New York Historical Society. Rachel Holland Hart, played by Bonnie Duvall, who is featured in Mount’s classic painting, “Eel Spearing at Setauket,” will also make an appearance. As a special treat, the tour will include a visit with members of the Setalcott Nation, Helen “Morningstar” Sells and Nellie Edwards, on the Village Green.

'Farmers Nooning' (1836) by William Sidney Mount. File photo
‘Farmers Nooning’ (1836) by William Sidney Mount. File photo

Frank Turano, co-chair of the committee and Historical Society Trustee, wrote the script for this year’s event. According to Turano, the Spirits Tour serves as both an educational event for the community and a fundraiser for the Three Village Historical Society. Previous tours have explored themes such as the Culper Spy Ring and Service to Country and Community as well as featuring prominent families in the area such as the Strongs.

The decision to celebrate William Sidney Mount this year was an easy one. “Mount is a significant artist from mid-19th century,” said Turano. “His work … leads into the Hudson River School … as a significant art movement. Long Island was used extensively by artists, both in [Mount’s] time and later times. We had all the big guns here at one point in the 19th century: the Moran Brothers, Winslow Homer, William Merritt Chase — they all followed Mount.” Aside from having been born here, Turano said one of Mount’s attractions to the area was the high quality of the light. “He often commented on the high clarity of the atmosphere and true colors.”

“Mount painted the [local] community, the people he saw, the people he grew up with. The end result was that you have a good representation of the life of the people here,” said Turano, adding, “Mount also came from an enormously talented family. He was taught sign painting by his older brother Henry, his younger brother Shepard Alonzo was an unbelievable portrait painter and they were all musicians.”

“Mount was a man for all seasons in the 19th century,” said Turano. Along with being very influential in the art world, with sponsors in New York, “he invented a violin named the Cradle of Harmony, which was designed to be louder than the typical fiddle of the day.” Turano said Mount’s paintings also give us good insight into the manner and dress of the people in Setauket in the early 1800s as a rural farming settlement. “How did the common people dress? What did they look like? He’s a character bigger than the community and that’s why he’s the focal point here,” said Turano.

Tours will leave from the Setauket Presbyterian Church, 5 Caroline Ave., Setauket every 15 minutes starting at 5 p.m. and last for approximately 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The last tour departs at 7:45 p.m. It is advised to dress warmly, wear comfortable shoes and bring a flashlight. Tickets in advance are $18 adults, $15 members; $10 children under 12, $8 members. Tickets on the night of the event are $25 adults, $20 members; $12 children under 12, $10 members. Copies of the Three Village Historical Society’s book, “William Sidney Mount: Family, Friends and Ideas” will be available for purchase for $3 on the night of the event. Rain date is Sunday, Oct. 23. To order tickets, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

In conjunction with the tour, the Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook will showcase its current exhibit in the Art Museum on the hill: “Drawn from Life: Objects and Stories from William Sidney Mount’s Paintings” and Mora’s Fine Wines will host a wine and spirit tasting event with hors d’ouevres at Madiran the Wine Bar, 209 Main St., E. Setauket on Oct. 22 from 1 to 4 p.m. Tickets for the wine tasting are $39.99. To order, please visit www.moraswines.com.

‘Catching the Tune,’ 1866, oil on canvas by William Sidney Mount. Image courtesy of Long Island Museum

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.

'Mount House' 1854, oil on canvas, by William Sidney Mount
‘Mount House’ 1854, oil on canvas, by William Sidney Mount

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.

‘Dancing: Children’s summer programs, 2006,’ photo by Julie Diamond
‘Dancing: Children’s summer programs, 2006,’ photo by Julie Diamond

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.

 ‘Dancing on the Barn Floor,’ 1831, oil on canvas by William Sidney Mount
‘Dancing on the Barn Floor,’ 1831, oil on canvas by William Sidney Mount

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.

Latest William Sidney Mount exhibit features 19th-century children at work and play

‘Walking Out,’ 1854, by William Sidney Mount

By Ellen Barcel

Today, youngsters all seem to be tied to websites, texting, apps and more. They’ve got their headphones on and download the latest music. Until recently, children had to make do without electricity. They played games (nonelectronic), enjoyed music (which people had to make themselves) and danced. School didn’t feature “smart” classrooms.

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

While children today have chores, in the agrarian past children’s jobs were very different: They gathered eggs from their chickens, went fishing and trapping and helped hang the laundry out on the clothesline. Gender conventions were stronger then. Girls played with dolls and boys with trains.

To provide a glimpse into early 19th-century children’s lives on Long Island, the Long Island Museum of American Art, History and Carriages in Stony Brook has opened a new exhibit, “Young Island,” showing a collection of William Sidney Mount’s paintings that depict children’s lives in the years before, during and just after the Civil War.

Mount was a 19th-century Setauket artist who is known for his paintings of everyday life. In an age before the camera, he also did portraits, many of children. “Catherine Adele Smith,” “Maria Winthrop Seabury,” “Young Girl” and “Tutie [Ruth Hawkins Mount]” are all examples of those many portraits, all part of the current exhibit.

Children teased and played around — yes, they were naughty then too, shown in “Mischievous Drop” and “Boys Wrangling,” and they had work to do. “Returning from the Orchard” shows a young girl who has gathered fruit, “Catching Rabbits” shows boys emptying a trap, and “Boy Hoeing Corn” shows a child working in the field.

The idea for the exhibit was Joshua Ruff’s, director of collections and interpretation. “The idea came from the fact that we often have a Mount exhibit, especially during the school year … We’ve never done an exhibit with children before so it seemed like a good fit,” said Julie Diamond, director of communications at the museum.

“It’s an easy theme to recognize for Mount … when you look through the several thousand drawings we own as well as the more than one hundred oil paintings, children play a significant role in both his genre and portraiture. Mount himself was surrounded by children in daily life, living under the same roof as both of his brothers’ large families. He had many nieces and nephews,” said Ruff.

“Children are featured in his work in a myriad of ways — representing innocence, a young nation’s optimism, political points etc. Since this was also a time that children worked extensively on the American/Long Island farm, there’s that element too. Mount is like a fair number of other American artists of the 19th century — Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson and others — who are using children in both allegorical and realistic ways in their work. So it’s a great theme to explore, even in a fairly small exhibit such as this,” he added.

‘Walking Out,’ 1854, by William Sidney Mount
‘Walking Out,’ 1854, by William Sidney Mount

Selecting the works to be included in the exhibit was a challenge. “Choice of the work was not easy,” said Ruff. “There are literally dozens of excellent drawings and paintings that could have been included, but this is our smaller gallery, so space only allows 18 works,” especially since many of Mount’s paintings are large.

Ruff continued, “I wanted to choose a range of both drawings and paintings, so we have five of the former, 13 of the latter. In some cases, these are works that we have not had out in a while — ‘Boys Snowballing,’ ‘Walking Out,’ and a few more have not been on view for some time. In other cases, such as ‘Girl Sleeping’ and ‘Turning the Leaf’ — these are some of Mount’s best-known works, but are usually not interpreted this way. ‘Turning the Leaf’ is also supported in this exhibit by a lovely small preliminary study Mount did for that painting.”

One of the best known of Mount’s works is “Dance of the Haymakers,” which shows workers in a barn dancing to a fiddler’s music. Outside, a small boy beats time to the music on the side of the barn with sticks. A dog lays on the ground and farm tools are propped up against the side of the barn.

“We wanted to show ‘Dance,’ not only because it relates to the theme, but also because it is going out on national loan to the Detroit Institute of Arts next year. One of the most important aspects of this exhibit for us is that we will be able to use it very well with our educational programming,” said Ruff.

Diamond added that the LIM has programs for school groups, one geared for kindergarten through second grade and another for fourth through sixth grade. “Both use the Mount exhibit as the basis for learning,” about American history.

“Also, it is a very good little family show. In addition to the regular labels/text, there are also labels for families. We hope that it will give people a chance to think about a side of Mount that they may not have considered much before,” said Ruff.

While at the LIM, visit some of its other exhibits, including [email protected], an outdoor exhibit of yarn bombing, the herb garden, “Gilding the Coasts: the Art and Design of Long Island’s Great Estates” and “Beth Levine: The First Lady of Shoes.”

“Young Island” is scheduled to run through the end of the year. The LIM, a Smithsonian affiliate, is located in Stony Brook at 1200 Route 25A. It is open Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. For further information, call 631-751-0066 or visit www.longislandmuseum.org.