Connected by the Power of Music

This portrait captures the shared humanity of blacks and whites in antebellum America.

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William Sidney Mount, The Power of Music, signed and dated 1847. Oil on canvas, 67 by 78 cm. Cleveland Museum of Art.

(The Root) -- This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University's Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

A rustic barn provides the setting for a masterful study of the contrasting terms of village life in antebellum America. A bold play of form, light and content establishes an indelible impression of unrehearsed music-making and its deep appeal to the human spirit. The dark, intricate, receding space of the barn interior, occupied by a young musician and his raptly attentive audience, is abruptly closed by the broad sunlit expanse of the door to the right. Outside, a black man stands unnoticed by the others, his head inclined downward in an impromptu reverie. The similar posture of the white man standing above and to his right effects a subtle variation of his own rapturous involvement with the music.

William Sidney Mount, an American artist born at the beginning of the 19th century, painted this intimate scene of musicality and reflection. His lifetime saw first the emancipation of slaves in his native state of New York and then the universal abolition of slavery during the Civil War. The artist was born in Setauket, a Long Island community located within reasonable commuting distance of the growing metropolis of New York City. While living in the city as a young man, he received formal artistic training at the still-new but already prestigious National Academy of Design. When he returned to Long Island, he maintained close contact with the art world of the city, including its rapidly growing class of patrons and critics.

By the time this compelling image was created, Mount was renowned as one of the pre-eminent painters of genre or everyday life. A man of many talents, he was just as passionately devoted to the art of music as he was to painting. Many of his works quite naturally feature the leisure-time activities of music-making and dancing.

The Power of Music was commissioned by Charles M. Leupp, a prominent businessman and art patron from New York. Finished in 1847, it was displayed the same year at the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design. The canvas immediately garnered favorable critical notice and was soon reproduced as a lithograph by the French firm of Goupil, Vibert and Co. In response to the dynamics of an emerging international art market, the print was marketed both in the United States and in Europe.

A further dimension of authenticity and engagement with the scene is added by Mount's habitual use of personal acquaintances in his evocations of life among the local gentry. According to a biographer, the fiddler in The Power of Music is the artist's nephew, John Henry Mount; the older man seated beside him is one Caleb Mills; and the man standing just within the doorway is Dick Ruland, a laborer employed by Mills. The identities of these men may seem of little concern now, but the fact that the black man, Robin Mills, shares the same last name with one of them is fully relevant here. The dubious bond between master and slave, broken by a remove of only 20 years, quite likely links the families of these two men.

 

Enough is known of Robin Mills to establish him as a person of some importance in Stony Brook on Long Island. He was a property owner and respected member of the recently founded local African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. As a landowner, Mills was eligible to vote, a right held by few African-American New Yorkers at the time. Most blacks in the state failed to meet the minimum property-value requirement of $250 established by an amendment to the state constitution in 1821. Tellingly, the measure did not apply to whites. In addition, blacks were already struggling under the onus of regressive voting restrictions such as the requirement of special passes in order to participate in state elections. When the general emancipation of slaves in New York took effect in 1827, the economic and political prospects of blacks in the state had therefore already been greatly curtailed.

Much has been written concerning Mount's views concerning blacks. A conservative Northern -- or "Hunker" -- Democrat, he supported the institution of slavery, and in fact favored its spread as new territories like Texas were being annexed to the U.S. According to his highly pointed political ideology, blacks were the unwitting tools of abolitionists for the furtherance of sectarian strife.

Despite his steadfast adherence to such partisan beliefs, so repugnant today, he seems not to have fallen into the abyss of virulent, personal racism. His portrayals of African Americans seem as sympathetically rendered as any of his white subjects, with no real sense of caricature or condescension. Yet the notional level of equality in Mount's paintings is disturbed by figural displacements that reveal the less pleasant underside of life in his community more accurately than he may have intended. In this seemingly harmonious study of simple camaraderie and isolated contemplation, social cohesion between black and white is achieved only through the tenuous, fleeting strains of music.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM