Connected by the Power of Music

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

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

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.

In The Power of Music, William Sidney Mount created a genuine mood of engagement with the viewer, extracting from his subjects a distilled sense of their common humanity. Bathed in the full light of day, the black man outside the barn takes on a dignified, timeless monumentality to become the true focus of the painting. Such subtlety of insight, unique in the antebellum period and rather ironic considering the artist’s political views, would not be seen again until the powerful evocation of American blacks in a new situation by artists such as Eastman Johnson and Winslow Homer a generation later.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.