Suzanne Johnson on Katherine Kirkpatrick and Vivian Nicholson-Mueller. The Art of William Sidney Mount:  Long Island People of Color on Canvas. Charleston, SC:  The History Press, 2022. 192p. 978-1-4671-5223-5.  Paper, $23.99.

A chance meeting in 2018 at Culper Spy Day, an event which celebrates the American Revolution in Stony Brook, Setauket, and St. James, led to the partnership responsible for this new publication about the artist William Sidney Mount (1807-1868).  Authors Katherine Kirkpatrick and Vivian Nicholson-Mueller each had interest in the people of color featured in many of Mount’s most noted genre paintings of life in rural Long Island. Kirkpatrick grew up in the Stony Brook area and writes historical fiction for young people.  Nicholson-Mueller is an educator who has served as a docent at the Thompson House in Setauket, owned by the Ward Melville Heritage Association. The authors state “nearly a dozen of Mount’s most famous paintings feature Black individuals and those of mixed ethnicity”, and he was “one of the few artists in America to depict Blacks as more than racist caricatures.” [16] Although created from 1830-1868 his works continue to interest and enlighten us. We are fortunate to have so many available for study at the Long Island Museum.

The authors joined to closely examine Mount’s paintings to identify his models. Nicholson-Mueller worked extensively on the genealogy and discovered she is a distant relative of Mount and several of the free and enslaved persons who appear in the paintings. Kirkpatrick’s research focused on the body of Mount scholarship which provided clues to the models’ identities. The book covers Mount’s life from his birth in Setauket to his brief stint in New York City working for his uncle Micah Hawkins.  When he returned to the Stony Brook area in 1829, his eyes had been opened to new ideas for genre painting as opposed to portrait painting.  The scenes and people he chose to paint were all around him. The authors assert “the people of color who served as Mount’s models tended to belong to the households of his extended family.” [39]

However, LIHJ founder Roger Wunderlich aptly described Mount’s “split personality” as “artistically forward and politically backward.”   He was not an abolitionist, yet he depicted his Black subjects humanely and not as cartoon characters, like others popular at the time. In addition to referencing previous important works about Mount, including books by Alfred Frankenstein and Deborah Johnson, the authors read through the fifty-six installments of Mount’s biography by Edward Payson Buffett as it was published by the Port Jefferson Times newspaper from 1923-1924, pasted into scrapbooks.  They studied census records and searched for crumbs of information found on tombstones in local burying grounds.  What emerged was a group of people we’ve come to recognize whose names we may now know.  They devote a chapter to each person they have identified. The models include Anthony Clapp who appears as the fiddler in Mount’s early genre painting, Rustic Dance after a Sleigh Ride (1830).  Anthony’s elaborate tombstone, with its long and heartfelt message, is preserved in the Long Island Museum collection.  Rachel in Eel Spearing at Setauket (1845), featured on the cover of this book, is either Rachel Youngs Tobias or Rachel Brewster. Others now identified include: Mary Brewster, Philena Seabury, and Mathias Jones in Dance of the Haymakers(1845); Abner Mills in Farmers Nooning (1836) and California News (1850); Robbin Mills in The Power of Music (1847); Henry Brazier in Right and Left (1850); Ben Cato in The Lucky Throw(1849); Andrew Brewster in The Bone Player (1856); and George Freeman in The Banjo Player (1856). Only one model remains unidentified by the authors, known as “The Sleeping Man” in The Dawn of Day (1867), one of Mount’s final paintings.

A 16-page center section of color illustrations of Mount paintings is included as well as many of his black and white sketches. A map drawn by Jennifer Kirkpatrick shows the locations of the five households featured in the paintings:  The Mount House in Stony Brook, St. George’s Manor in Strong’s Neck, the Mills Pond House in St. James, the Joseph Brewster house in Setauket, and East Farm in Head of the Harbor. The authors have provided extensive notes, a selected bibliography, detailed illustration credits, and an index. With this book and lectures the authors have given recently, we come to know all the people and places beautifully painted by William Sidney Mount.


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