L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Three portraits of African-American musicians by William Sydney Mount

Right and Left

Right and Left met with great acclaim when it appeared in 1850:  "This latest fruit of the genius of the artist, of whom the country is so justly proud, we confidently predict must make a hit. It is conceived with great spirit and truth of nature....  [The fiddler] is indeed a chef d’oeuvre of Ethiopian portraiture."  Mount himself played the violin and was a great lover of music.

The Banjo Player

The Banjo Player of 1856 has been identified as George Freeman, who was bound to a relative of Mount, and was allowed to go to Stony Brook to sit for the painter.  Mount recorded in his diary that he completed the portrait in sixteen sittings; eight days, two sittings a day.

The Bone Player

Mount also painted The Bone Player in 1856, on a commission from the printers Goupil and Co. for two pictures of African American musicians, to be lithographed for the European market. These became the last in a series of life-size likenesses of musicians that Mount executed between 1849 and 1856.  The "bones" - bars of ivory, wood, or bone clicked together - were an instrument associated with African-American minstrels, and a type recognizable to American and European audiences.

In his portrayal of these three musicians, Mount was walking a fine line between stereotype and individualism, between genre painting and actual portraiture. Yet despite any inherent ambiguity, these paintings, for their time, were unprecedented in the humanity they afforded an African-American subject.  And beyond any questions of intent, these are three exquisitely beautiful paintings.


William Sidney Mount (26 November 1807, Setauket, Long Island – 19 November 1868, Setauket, Long Island), American painter of landscapes and portraits, but best known for his genre paintings. Raised on a farm until the age of seventeen, Mount apprenticed himself to his older brother Henry, a sign painter working in New York City; they were joined by their brother, Shepard Alonzo, who eventually became a portrait painter. When the National Academy of Design began to include drawing classes in 1826, Mount was among its first students. He was elected a full member of the Academy in 1832, but a year later returned to Setauket where he would remain, sending his work for exhibition in New York. Mount's earlier painting were based of historical themes, but after returning to his hometown, his work began to be representations of the manners and celebrations of rural life. His home and studio at Stony Brook is now a National Historic Landmark.

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