Long Island’s Famous Artist

Footnotes to Long Island History


JUNE 8, 1950 


Thomas R. Bayles

       Among American artists, the name of William Sidney Mount stands out as the most successful painter of the happy side of Long Island country life. Almost all of his paintings portray a story of rural life in the "good old days," of the last century when straw rides and hay frolices were the order of the day, and the titles take us back to the life and joys of our grandfathers. Most of his paintings were taken from actual scenes on Long Island and many of them near his home at Stony Brook.

       He was born November 26, 1807, at Setauket, where his father, Thomas Shepard Mount, was a farmer and innkeeper. He had three brothers and a sister. His mother was the former Julia Hawkins of Stony Brook.

       During William's childhood, the family moved to the Hawkins homestead in Stony Brook, which was the home of his mother's family. This has been known as the Mount house, and in the old studio in the attic of this house many of his paintings were made.

       At the age of 17, he went to New York and worked with his brother, Henry S. Mount as a sign painter, but it soon became evident he was destined for higher things. He was elected an associate of the National Academy in 1831,and his paintings soon made their appearance in important galleries and exhibitions. After a few years in the city, he returned to Stony Brook where he applied himself to his art the rest of his life.

       His first picture a portrait of himself, was painted in 1828. In 1830 his painting, "The Country Dance," attracted wide attention, and indicated to the young artist the road along which fame beckoned. He knew and loved his country neighbors and had a wonderful ability to put on canvas their homely joys of everyday life.

       "The Farmers Nooning," painted in 1837, is one of his best works and represents the noon hour rest of a farmer and his men who were working in a distant field too far from the homestead to return for dinner. The scene was painted at a spot on the Mount farm at Stony Brook.

       Many of his best paintings were of scenes on his farm and around the old barn, and The "Power of Music" was staged in the center of the barn, with the bulging hay lofts overhead, and an interested group of listeners on the sidelines. "Bargaining for a Horse," and "Coming to the Point" graphically depict on old fashioned horse trade.

       Mount was a close friend of Benjamin F. Thompson, the historian of Long Island, and the artist and writer had much in common. A reproduction of the portrait of Thompson by Mount may be found in the frontispiece in the third edition of "Thompson's History of Long Island."

       The old Mount homestead at Stony Brook was built in 1757 by Eleazer Hawkins and is surrounded by boxwood as old as the house itself. The house is a large one, two and a-half stories in height, and as we approach the front door our attention is attracted by the old Queen Anne knocker, to the face of which, tradition has it, the Mounts applied flesh tints regularly. To the right of the enormous fireplace in the kitchen is an old seat which was the favorite resting place of a privileged slave known as Cain.

       Many artists are unfortunate that they are not in tune with their times, but this was not true of Mount, He painted the American scene at the height of a period when nationalism was living force. America was proud of its newborn individuality, and Americans felt no false sense depicted themselves as rustics or backwoodsmen, because they knew themselves to be self-reliant and as good as the next man, So it was that Mount could paint what he saw around him and find his efforts praised.

       The artist died on November 19, 1868, and was buried in the old cemetery adjoining the Presbyterian church in Setauket. His tombstone carries the following inscription.

       "William Sidney Mount. Born at Setauket, November 26, 1807, Died November 19, 1868. As a painter, eminent and original. As a man, exemplary and beloved."

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