The Rise of Genre in American PaintingThere is an old quotation to the effect: "I work hard as a farmer so my son can become a doctor, and his son, an artist." There was much the same development in art as in life during the early years of this country. Some of the first artwork created on these shores had the utilitarian value of being either signs, or its sculptural equivalent, tombstones. The second generation was composed of self-taught portrait artists. The third generation journeyed to Europe and brought back the Grand Manner of painting from England and applied it to portraiture, landscapes, and to a lesser extent, history painting (which had little appeal in a country that, at the time, had very little history to paint). A fourth generation, found both training and inspiration in this country, and so began the development of an American tradition in art that drew it apart from our European heritage. That "home grown" tradition first manifested itself in what we now call genre painting.
Typical of this type of painting is the work of William Sidney Mount. Mount was born in Stony Brook, New York, a small town on Long Island, in the year 1807. As a young man he journeyed to the big city (New York) where he for a time plied his trade as a sign painter. He also studied art at the newly minted National Academy of Design in the mid 1820s. At first his work was largely English in style, creating history paintings and Biblical works. After a few years though, he decided he didn't like the city, sign painting, or the difficult-to -sell history paintings he'd been doing either, so he returned to Stony Brook and a simpler life where he found both inspiration and subject matter in the rural life he'd missed in the city.
His first success was a painting in 1830 entitled Rustic Dance after a Sleigh Ride, which received wide acclaim and found a ready market in the very city he'd fled. It was purchased by American art collector, Luman Reed, because it reminded him of the peasant country life from which he'd grown to be one of American's richest merchants. Mount's work quickly struck a similar chord with dozens of other New York businessmen wanting more than the empty wilderness landscapes of the Hudson River School. And thus a market developed for works like Mount's Dancing on the Barn Floor (1831), and The Truant Gamblers painted in 1835. Mount's success spawned others in the field and to varying degrees, their work could be characterised as unsophisticated, nostalgic, sentimental, illustrative, and stereotypical, yet they perfectly matched the times in which they were painted and the needs of the upwardly-striving businessmen who purchased them. They became, without intending to, our first form of history painting.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
25 June 1998