The People in the Paintings: A Nineteenth Century Long Island Artist Features People of Color

By Katherine Kirkpatrick | Arcadia Author
                 Katherine-Kirkpatrick-and-The-Bone-Player,-MFA,-Boston.jpg

William Sidney Mount’s 1856 painting The Bone Player presents a dapperly dressed young man wearing a broad-brimmed hat, a knotted red scarf, fancy shirt, vest, and brown jacket with lapels. He holds “bones”—similar to castanets—between his fingers. The music made on these cattle bones, when clapped together with quick movements of the wrist, sounds like the taps made by tap dancers. The bone player’s earring and goatee add to his distinctive appearance. The jug and the glass in the background of the painting suggest a tavern scene, and the box with a keyhole is likely the itinerant musician’s carrying case.

The Bone Player, owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is one of eleven paintings featured in my book The Art of William Sidney Mount: Long Island People of Color on Canvas, coauthored with Vivian Nicholson-Mueller (The History Press, September 2022). William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), who lived on the North Shore of Long Island for nearly his whole life, is known as one of America’s first, and best, genre (or scene) painters. The people of the Three Villages (Setauket, Stony Brook, and Old Field), St. James, and Smithtown, and often the music they made, inspired many of his finest artworks. Of these, nearly a dozen paintings feature Black people and those of mixed ethnicity.

 In the book, Vivian and I reveal the identities of the models, and present details such as where they lived, whom they worked for, the names of their spouses and children, and anything else that is known about their lives. Though it’s inherently problematic to use a white artist’s work to research Black individuals, Mount’s paintings possess immeasurable historical value. He leaves us with the only visual records—and very handsome ones at that—for a group of people for whom very little is known. During the years Mount painted, between 1830 and 1867, photography was not commonplace and people of color were rarely the subjects of fine art. In fact, it was typical of the time that Black individuals were portrayed in hideous, racist cartoons. We include two of those racist caricatures in the book to show the stark difference between these and Mount’s work.

I became interested in Mount because I grew up less than a mile from what is now called the Long Island Museum of American Art, History, and Carriages in Stony Brook. This extraordinarily unique museum houses the largest collection of Mount’s drawings and paintings in the world. Seeing those Mount works, and likewise the museum’s carriages and wagons, and desks and pot-bellied stove in the old school house where I took children’s classes, is to me like greeting old friends. I came to love art and writing in those early years. A surprise to no one, I grew up to become an author.

My interest in the Revolutionary War also carries over from childhood, and it was at Setauket’s Annual Culper Spy Day, in 2019, that I met Vivian Nicholson-Mueller. Vivian served as a docent in the Thompson House, a colonial home. A year later, we met again in the home of a mutual friend, and soon after that began discussing book ideas involving Vivian’s ancestors. We chanced upon a mutual interest in William Sidney Mount when I happened to send Vivian a card of Farmers Nooning in the mail. In a phone call, she responded by saying, “I really must research the Mount paintings. I think I’m related to some of the people in those paintings.” At that point we dropped everything else we were talking about. We’d found our book.

 I’ll describe our research process. We studied the paintings carefully for clues, such as age of models and ethnicity, and the dates when the paintings were created. We read the artist’s diaries and letters (which are published in a large tome called William Sidney Mount by Alfred Frankenstein, Abrams, 1975) and we read the 56 articles that Mount’s first biographer, Edward Payson Buffet, published about Mount in 1923-1924 in the Port Jefferson Times. Buffet interviewed Mount’s relations and others who knew him. Fortunately, Buffet recorded the names of many of Mount’s models, as well as occasional anecdotes about their lives.

  Vivian and I corroborated all Buffet’s information about the models against the Brookhaven, New York portion of the U.S. Census reports, family Bibles, merchants and doctors’ journals, church and cemetery records, and old maps. Vivian already had a lot of this material collected on her Ancestry.com account because of the ten years of research she did in relation to Old Bethel Cemetery in Stony Brook. Some years back, Vivian and a cousin, Simira Tobias, had spearheaded a successful campaign to place Old Bethel Cemetery, which was established in the mid 19th century by free people of color, to the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places.

   Vivian’s study of maps proved to be particularly illuminating as she was able to determine exactly where the models lived. All dwelled in close proximity to, if not within the same house with, Mount’s siblings or other family relations.

 None of Mount’s models of Black or mixed ethnicity were enslaved during the years Mount created paintings of them. Most were free farmers; one was noted as being indentured. A number of the models were part Black and part Native American, a fact which surprised me; intermarriage between Black and Native peoples was common on Long Island in the 18th and 19th centuries. Why this is so is a topic we explore in one of our book’s sidebars.

 Vivian did indeed discover that she is related to at least two of Mount’s models, including Andrew Brewster, The Bone Player. He was forty-seven at the time Mount created the painting. Andrew was one of five children born to Nell Brewster, an enslaved woman who was all or part Native, in Setauket’s Brewster House. His father is unknown. One of Mount’s three older brothers, Robert Nelson Mount, lived next door on a joint property owned by Robert Nelson’s father-in-law, John Brewster.

 Census records indicate that sometimes Andrew lived in one house and sometimes the other. Likely he worked for both men. He’s listed as “B” for “Black” and as a “laborer.” One census lists that he had a biracial wife, noted as “M” for “Mulatto,” and that her name was Aner. Apparently they did not have children as none are listed on census records.

 Corn, wheat, and oats grew on a property of several hundred acres. A census inventory also notes milking cows, other cattle, and swine. In a landscape study Mount made of the household, entitled Detail for Long Island Farmhouses, two black chickens with red crests assume a prominent place in the foreground.

Vivian-and-The-Banjo-Player-in-Long-Island-Museum-Vault.jpegMount painted The Bone Player a nd a companion piece, The Banjo Player, in the same year, 1856. Both paintings were commissioned to be made for lithographic prints to be sold in Europe. Wearing a striped cap and silk shirt, vest and neck scarf, the jaunty banjo player strums his instrument with joy. The painting tells a story; the cap and the bugle mouthpiece that hang from the banjo player’s chain are indicators (in the fictional story being presented) that the young man is a coachman. Coachmen used bugles as we use car horns today.

Interest ingly enough, George Freeman, Mount’s twenty-one year old model for The Banjo Player, lived and worked at the Mount-Brewster household alongside Andrew Brewster. Like Andrew, George Freeman was born in the Brewster House. His mother, Caroline Brewster Freeman, a biracial (Black-White) free person, worked for John Brewster.


Caroline and her husband, Charles Freeman, relocated their family of three to the Ridge
 area of Eastern Long Island soon after George was born. A census record shows that by the time George was fifteen, he’d returned to the home of his mother’s former employer. Within a ten-year-period, probably much shorter, John Brewster released George from his indenture. George, and his wife, Hannah, a young woman he’d met in Setauket, settled in Mattituck. They had two sons, Apollos George and Irving.

 It’s not known if Andrew Brewster played the bones, or if George Freeman played the banjo. They might have. Musicologists have commented on the accuracy with which the models handle the bones and banjo. It’s clear in Mount’s diaries and letters that some, if not all, members of the Mount-Brewster household played instruments. Robert Nelson Mount was a dance teacher and fiddler, as well as a farmer. His father-in-law, John Mount, a widower, played the fiddle as well. As did William Sidney Mount. Mount occasionally performed at social events, dabbled in violin design and manufacture, and collected several hundred scores of sheet music in his lifetime.

Reading between the lines of Mount’s writings, the Brewster-Mount household was quite lively and boisterous, as well as passionately musical; and, at least in the case of Robert Nelson, if not the others, there was a lot of drinking going on.
Brewster-House-by-Jennifer-Kirkpatrick.JPG

A decade after these paintings were made, Mount took up residence at Robert Nelson’s house. It was there that he died in 1868. Another relation of Vivian’s, a free farmer in Setauket named Silas Brewster, helped transport Mount’s coffin in a wagon to his grave at the Setauket Presbyterian Churchyard.

 Now, fast-forwarding a hundred and fifty-four years later, Vivian and I have published The Art of William Sidney Mount: Long Island People of Color on Canvas. We’ve paid tribute to Andrew Brewster, George Freeman, and a host of others whose names are now known and whose stories have now been recorded. Our first publication event took place at the Brewster House, which is now a museum run by the Ward Melville Heritage Organization. I’m happy to say that because of information revealed in my book, this preservation organization ordered posters to be made of The Bone Player and The Banjo Player to be placed on permanent display in the Brewster House. Of course the original paintings remain in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook. But figuratively speaking, Andrew Brewster and George Freeman have come home.
 
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