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The Long Island Museum Presents
Facing the Issues:

William Sidney Mount and Current Events
March 2 through August 19, 2012

 

The Long Island artist William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) lived during a time of tremendous growth and change in America.  The population grew rapidly, more people moved from the countryside to cities, new states were admitted to the union, and the nation expanded westward.

No longer was the country primarily a nation of small farmers. Economic opportunities abounded, more people had voices in elections, and a host of reform movements promoted religious fervor, temperance (opposition to the drinking of alcohol), the abolition of slavery, and women’s rights. 

These rapid changes caused disruptions, uncertainty and discontent, as not everyone embraced the new politics, economy or morality. Mount’s paintings reflect this tension.  He himself had a foot in both the city world of New York (having spent part of his childhood there) and the rural world of Long Island (where he lived the majority of his life).  Mount’s paintings do not show a clear political, economic, or social position, but rather reflect the ambivalence and anxieties of his time.

Mount was also mindful of the market for his art; he painted works that appealed to a variety of buyers.  Some of his paintings were commissioned by newly wealthy businessmen who wanted sentimental depictions of their rural neighbors, perhaps to remind them of their own origins and how far they had advanced in the world.  Mount accommodated them by depicting rural Americans alternatively as ignorant hicks and shrewd traders. His works glorify the wise farmer, but also poke fun at those greedy for money, votes, or liquor.  On another issue, although he was no abolitionist, he was one of the first painters to depict African Americans as individuals rather than caricatures.

The paintings in this exhibit are divided into three groups, according to the issues they explore. The first section, Economic Growth, includes works that contrast the “tainted” rich entrepreneurs with the “wholesome” yeoman farmers.  The second section, Politics, contrasts established (and often Whig) politicians with (mostly Democratic) newcomers.  The third, Changing Society, contrasts the established upper class with the newly rich, and also explores tensions within the anti-slavery and temperance movements.

 


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