William Sidney Mount

Though not the first American genre painter, William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) was the foremost 19th-century artist to work in that style, documenting the daily life of the common man. His paintings lies at the core of a tradition that continued into the 20th century. His naturalistic portraits and narrative scenes, with their psychological perception and democratic treatment of human beings, form fascinating artistic parallels to the musical compositions of Stephen Foster and the poetry of Walt Whitman.

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Image: “The Banjo Player” by William Sidney Mount, 1856

Like Whitman, Mount was born on the shores of Long Island, east of New York City. His birthplace was the town of Setauket, but he and his four siblings and widowed mother came to settle in Stony Brook. After returning from a period of study in New York City, Mount made the town his base of artistic operations. He apprenticed in his brother’s sign painting shop in 1825, and devoted his leisure to drawing and painting. At first he painted portraits and literary, theatrical, and Biblical subjects, but in 1830 he painted his first genre picture, The Country Dance. Within two years he was accorded full membership in the National Academy of Design, whose president, the inventor and painter Samuel B. Morse, hailed Mount as one of the pioneers of American art.

Until his death in 1868, Mount canvassed the Long Island countryside in his portable studio, gleaning his subject matter from the rural life of his neighbors, whom he captured in spontaneous moments of dancing, farming, fiddling, reading, conversing, or playing. That music is a frequent metaphor is not surprising for an artist who played the fiddle; whose uncle Micah composed one of America’s first musical comedies; and whose brother Robert was a dancing master. “I often ask someone to play while I am sketching him,” Mount said, “for it enlivens the subject’s face.”

This liveliness can be seen in two of Mount’s most famous portraits of African-American musicians, The Banjo Player and The Bones Player. Like Stephen Foster, Mount used his art to argue with sensitivity for the dignity of the black man. He was the first painter to accord African Americans a prominent, non-stereotypical place in his canvases. He depicted them at work, at play, and at song–with a dispassion that bespoke his egalitarian belief that individuals must be accepted for their own worth. In another reminder of Foster, his paintings seem to inspire, especially in today’s harsh world, a nostalgia for a gentler time and a simpler way of life. Their appeal, however, goes beyond the nostalgic. Like his fellow Democrat Walt Whitman, William Sidney Mount argues with his art for honesty and inclusion, for the plain-spoken, unapologetic embrace of life in its myriad manifestations.

–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing

William Sidney Mount's "The Banjo Player" (1856)


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