William Sidney Mount
Oil on canvas
57.4 x 69.7 cm (22 5/8 x 27 7/16 in.) Signed, lower left: "W. S. Mount/1835"
William Owen and Erna Sawyer Goodman Collection, 1939.392
William Sidney Mount transformed the house of a military general in Setauket, New York, into the interior of a tavern for this 1835 painting. A strong light outlines the revelers who encourage an apparently drunken (and probably homeless) man to dance. This boisterous figure raises his vessel over his head and stamps his feet on the floor as others clap a beat and watch. The dancing man is the source of amusement for all, including the African American man in the shadows. Although he is a free black servant, this man is physically separated from the group and does not participate in the revelry as an equal.
The lively dancer wears a tattered jacket and is probably a hard-cider drunk, judging by his attire and belongings on the floor. The liquor jug and ax may refer to the cutting of wood on public lands as a legal punishment for drunkenness. Mount deliberately introduced the subject of drunkenness into the painting by including a temperance notice on the wall of the tavern. Alcohol consumption per person was at an all-time high in the 1830s, and many of New York's temperance societies considered taverns to be symbols of excessive drinking.
Mount is considered to be one of the first Americans to specialize in genre subjects. In contrast to the panoramic, heroic landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church and Thomas Cole, Mount's paintings portray scenes of everyday life. He learned to paint signs and portraits from his brother in New York and then attended more formal art classes, copying prints and casts at the National Academy of Design. In the 1830s, prints of several of Mount's rural images were distributed throughout America and Europe, making him one of the few American artists known in Europe at that time.