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Spearing Eels, Catching Flat Fish

By Margaret Tsuda / December 19, 1989



THIS painting by William Sidney Mount is one of the most beautiful painted in America in the first half of the 19th century. It is a fine example of American luminism which would not become a style until the second half of the century with the later members of the Hudson River School. Mount was born at Setauket, Long Island, in 1807. His farmer father died when he was seven and the family moved to his grandfather's farm at nearby Stony Brook, New York. When he was in his teens he became an apprentice at his older brother's sign painting company in New York City. This experience encouraged him to study art at the National Academy of Design in New York City, where he first exhibited in 1828. He began painting portraits and the genre paintings for which he is known. He was elected to full membership in the National Academy when he was only 24.

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City life did not agree with Mount and he returned to Stony Brook by 1836. When rural life paled he would return to the city but was soon back to the bucolic charms of Long Island.

This painting might be classified as a genre painting, in that the activity depicted was commonplace for the area. However, the elegance of the simple horizontal composition enriched by the strong diagonals of the paddle and eel spear and the beautifully rendered light of the tranquil scene raises it into a class reserved for masterpieces rather than that of folksy anecdotes.

Being a Jacksonian Democrat, Mount enjoyed his genre painting, writing in his journal, ``I must paint such pictures as speak at once to the spectator - scenes that are most popular - that will be understood in an instant.'' They also provided, it seems, an adequate livelihood as engravers were eager to pay $100 for the copyright - a goodly sum in the 1850s.

This painting was probably not spirited enough to make it a suitable subject for an engraving in spite of its anecdotal origin from remembered boyhood. However its high quality was evident; the gentleman who commissioned it paid the artist $250.

A letter from Mount to a friend notes: ``An old Negro by the name of Hector gave me the first lesson in spearing flat-fish and eels. Early one morning we were along shore ... it was calm, and the water was as clear as a mirror, every object perfectly distinct to the depth from 1 to 12 feet, now and then could be seen an eel darting through the seaweed or a flat-fish shifting his place and throwing the sand over his body for safety. `Steady there at the stern,' said Hector, as he stood on the bow [with his spear held ready] ... while I would watch his motions, and move the boat according to the direction of his spear.''

Aside from the transposition of Hector into a stalwart woman this could be an exact description of ``Eel Spearing at Setauket'': The white boy is obviously eager and intent on obeying and supporting the action of the black woman.

As blacks in Mount's paintings are always depicted with a sympathetic brush and as individuals never stereotypes, it is astonishing to learn that the artist was an anti-abolitionist. But he was a complex man with surprising contradictions. From his anecdotal paintings, which, while well-painted, do have a rustic air, one would never guess that his notebooks were filled with perspective drawings, notations on pigments, references to Joshua Reynolds's treatise on painting, and the methods and compositions of the European Old Masters. Mount never traveled abroad, but he became acquainted with European art through engravings called mezzotints and book illustrations.

MOUNT was also a plein air painter, declaring, ``It is of no use to paint a landscape in the house from fancy when a better one can be painted in the open air.'' At the time he painted landscape painting was not yet in vogue, so his landscapes were confined to sketches in oil and used in the background of paintings such as this.

He became a close friend of Thomas Cole - who would come to be credited with establishing the Hudson River School - and went with him on sketching expeditions in the Catskills.

Later in life Mount designed a ``portable studio'' so that ``No time is lost on account of the hot or cold air. This vehicle with glass windows can be drawn by hand, or behind a wagon if the painter should not wish to keep a horse.'' The French Impressionists would have coveted this invention.

Mount came from a musical family and also invented what he called a hollow back fiddle or the ``Cradle of Harmony.'' He and his brothers exchanged fiddle tunes and an uncle composed one of Broadway's first musical comedies, ``The Saw Mill or A Yankee Trick,'' when Mount was still a teenager.

Many of his paintings carry a musical theme and, for his portraits, he mentions: ``I often ask someone to play while I am sketching for it livens the subject's face.'' One wonders if he had read the story that Leonardo da Vinci kept the smile on Mona Lisa's face by means of musicians in the background as he painted that most famous of all paintings.