When author and self-described history buff Katherine Kirkpatrick visited the area around her childhood home on Long Island several years ago, she had no idea that taking a historical tour of a Colonial-era saltbox farmhouse in Setauket would open a door to her future.
There she was greeted by Vivian Nicholson-Mueller, who, dressed in period costume, offered to answer any questions about the Thompson House and its five generations of inhabitants, including Dr. Samuel Thompson, a physician and patriot who counted members of George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring among his patients.
After their reintroduction through a mutual friend a year later, Kirkpatrick found herself joining Nicholson-Mueller in her efforts to bring local history to life. Their collaboration, “The Art of William Sidney Mount: Long Island People of Color on Canvas,” was released last month by Arcadia Publishing.
“I had sent Vivian a condolence note and just happened to add a postcard of a Mount painting — ‘Farmers Nooning’ — one of quite a few cards my mom purchased long ago at The Long Island Museum that I found stashed away in an old desk. Vivian called to tell me that, ironically, the model for the sleeping Black man in the depiction of resting fieldworkers might be her distant relative,” said Kirkpatrick, recounting how she learned of their shared interest in the 19th century Long Island painter celebrated for his naturalistic portrayals of everyday life. “It was just one of those things. On a whim, I had actually sent Vivian a picture that might have been one of her ancestors.”
Kirkpatrick largely credits her affinity for William Sidney Mount’s imagery to having grown up less than a mile from The Long Island Museum, the most comprehensive repository of the artist’s work, writings and personal effects, gifted by the late Three Village businessman and philanthropist Ward Melville.
“Melville sold my parents their land in 1951,” noted Kirkpatrick. “The road feeding into the museum’s back entrance was my playground as a child.”
Nicholson-Mueller’s path to Mount and the local rural environment he depicted, on the other hand, was less direct. Approximately 15 years ago, the Montessori school teacher, who lives in Harlem, began studying the writings of Thompson, who was also a close friend and patron of the artist.
“I wanted to find out why my fourth great-grandparents died so young, leaving six children as orphans,” she said. “Researching what diseases were prevalent in the late 1700s and early 1800s, I started to read Dr. Thompson’s journals in the New York Public Library.
“The first time I went through them I was focused on what he was treating, but then I realized some of the names he mentions in his diary were those of my ancestors, that I share a history with these people,” Nicholson-Mueller said.
Among them was the father of Robbin Mills, one of Nicholson-Mueller’s ancestors and a model for one of Mount’s finest paintings, “The Power of Music,” in which a Black man is shown listening intently outside an open barn door to a white fiddle player entertaining comrades inside.
As noted in Kirkpatrick and Nicholson-Mueller’s book, while Mount’s pastoral vignettes gained increasing acclaim and a widening audience, the people the authors describe as “Black,” “Black-Native” and “mixed race” who posed for his compositions remained anonymous. That is, with the exception of a few models whose names were documented by Mount’s first biographer, Edward Payson Buffet, who conducted interviews in the 1920s with the painter’s family, acquaintances and neighbors.
“The research Katherine and Vivian has assembled enlarges our perspective and enriches our understanding of the time frame in which Mount painted,” said Joshua Ruff, deputy director of The Long Island Museum. “People who have not been given their own historical voice or narrative are getting one here.”
Gloria Rocchio, president of the Ward Melville Heritage Organization, also applauds the authors’ achievement.
“It is important to bring people of color out of the shadows,” she said, adding that the organization is committed to hosting programs presenting the authors’ groundbreaking research at its historic Brewster House location through next spring.
According to Ruff, Mount’s own record-keeping in his journals and correspondence rarely offered details about the people he depicted — Black or white. “He wrote more about the painting process, the quality of the light, and the entities who commissioned him to do the work,” he explained. “Art history has also not focused a lot on identity, on the people on the other side, the genesis of the inspirations for these depictions. Katherine and Vivian’s book changes that.”
Still, the identities and lives of many of Mount’s white subjects have been otherwise documented and written about. “No one made great efforts to do the same for people of color,” Nicholson-Mueller said.
The Black and multiracial models in Mount’s paintings were generally associated with the homesteads of his siblings and extended family within a seven-mile radius on the North Shore of Long Island encompassing Setauket, the artist’s birthplace, and extending into Stony Brook and Smithtown. Today, visitors to the area can pass by — and, in some instances, go inside — many of the main houses, five of which Kirkpatrick and Nicholson-Mueller feature in their book.
“William Sidney Mount never married, so as a single person, he attached to other people’s households. It wasn’t traditional or practical to be a single man with your own estate,” explained Kirkpatrick. “Mount also liked to move around. It was his artistic temperament.”
It was also his nature to be exceedingly faithful to his subjects.
“Mount was as careful as he could be with what he put on canvas. It is extraordinarily nuanced, the way a farm, field or barn looks,” said Ruff. “There is no question he was just as careful in the ways he presented people. They are not composite sketches or caricatures. They are real flesh and blood — people he knew and interacted with.”
While it is “problematic,” as the authors readily acknowledge in their book, to look at the paintings of a white man to learn about nonwhites, little other documentation exists about communities of color at that time. Photographs taken before the Civil War were rare — and, for that matter, so too was having a renowned hometown artist portraying people of color in his work.
The paintings do offer clues to the models’ identities.
“You can tell their skin color and their approximate age,” said Kirkpatrick. The co-authors corroborated the images’ details with Mount’s writings, Buffet’s findings and other available sources, including census reports, family Bible inscriptions, and merchant and church records.
Their comprehensive detective work has led, for example, to two compelling candidates for the identity of the Black woman Mount depicted spearfishing in a skiff steered by a young white boy on the smooth waters of Long Island’s North Shore. “Eel Spearing in Setauket” — likely inspired by the artist’s experiences “with an enslaved older person named Hector from his own childhood” — was met with mixed reactions by reviewers who, according to the authors, were “baffled and uncomfortable” with the woman who took center stage in the painting when the 1845 work was exhibited at New York’s National Academy of Design.
The name Rachel (or Rachael) has long been connected with the fisherwoman in the “Eel Spearing” painting.
The authors make convincing and detailed arguments for narrowing her identity to one of two individuals. Rachael Youngs Tobias, though freed, was born into slavery in the same household as George Washington Strong, who commissioned the painting and was a distant cousin on Mount’s father’s side. Her contender, Rachel Brewster, is the sister of Andrew Brewster, who modeled for Mount’s “The Bone Player,” one of four portraits of Black musicians painted by the artist. Andrew Brewster was associated with the property where the painter frequently boarded, as his brother Robert Nelson Mount had married into the Brewster family.
“Free people of color often took the surnames of the families aligned with their homesteads,” Nicholson-Mueller explained.
The individual portraits Mount painted of Black musicians were a significant departure from the way the performers were generally depicted at the time — and even from the way the artist depicted them early in his career. This is made evident when comparing the somewhat cartoonish image of a Black violinist in “Rustic Dance After a Sleigh Ride,” 1830, for instance, with the sensitively rendered fiddler in “Right and Left,” 1850.
“As a fellow musician, Mount showed a clear familiarity with his subjects in these portraits. The fact they are dressed very finely and the center of attention shows he was trying to relay a message — whether people got it or not — that this was somebody of significance,” said Georgette Grier-Key, a Long Island historian and preservationist with an emphasis on mixed-heritage communities. “He was not just looking to highlight a few African Americans. He really had an appreciation for their contributions. He wanted to represent American life and all facets of it — the larger American story.”
“Mount jumped far, far ahead of caricature to the realm of fine art,” agreed Kirkpatrick, noting how the Black models’ three-quarter poses and well-appointed attire echo portraits by European Old Masters. The paintings were commissioned by Mount’s lithography agent, German émigré William Schaus, who understood well the American genre artist’s market appeal.
While New York’s up-and-coming industrialists were open to the portrayal of Black people in the paintings they commissioned, they still preferred them relegated to the background. “These businessmen had new money but had grown up on farms and liked the nostalgic feeling captured in Mount’s works,” said Kirkpatrick.
On the other hand, the authors write that Schaus “must have heard of the popularity of Black musicians (or those posing as Black people) in musical theater,” and European audiences would likely show interest in their full portraits.
Although Mount portrayed his Black and multiracial subjects with great humanity, he was not politically progressive. He voted against Abraham Lincoln twice and backed candidates running for office who felt that racial equality would threaten their societal standing. The historian Roger Wunderlich has described Mount as “a split personality who was artistically forward and politically backward” — an assessment with which the authors agree.
Kirkpatrick and Nicholson-Mueller’s book, which includes never-before-published sketches of Black models from The Long Island Museum’s collection, goes far in advancing Mount’s undertaking of giving breadth and depth to the people in his paintings.
“Katherine and Vivian have done the herculean job of bringing these figures in Mount’s two-dimensional paintings to life,” said Rocchio, “of making them tangible and relevant.”
Katherine Kirkpatrick and Vivian Nicholson-Mueller will discuss their book, "The Art of William Sidney Mount: Long Island People of Color on Canvas" (Arcadia Publishing, 2022) at 2 p.m. Oct. 2, at The Long Island Museum, 1200 Rte. 25A, Stony Brook; copies of the book will be available for purchase, and visitors can also view original Mount paintings addressed in their research in the exhibit "Face Value: American Portraiture"; visit longislandmuseum.org for details.