WMHO Presents “William Sidney Mount and Long Island’s Free People of Color” at Brewster House – 71Bait

By Tara Mae

Iidyllic, intimate scenes of small-town life and sublime serene landscapes. Warmly lit faces, all too often absent from American fine art, immortalized for generations. The art of William Sidney Mount both embraced and defied 19th-century standards.

Through this prism, the Ward Melville Heritage Organization (WMHO) will present a special program entitled “William Sidney Mount and Long Island’s Free People of Color” on Saturday 24th September at the Brewster House (c. 1665) in Setauket.

The cover of the new book by Katherine Kirkpatrick and Vivian Nicholson-Mueller.

The talk by Katherine Kirkpatrick and Vivian Nicholson-Mueller, co-authors of The Art of William Sidney Mount: Long Island People of Color on Canvaswill explore the identities and lives of the 19th-century Black, Native Black, and Black and White people that Mount portrayed in many of his works, as well as their connections to the Three Village community.

During the two sessions of the presentation, from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., Kirkpatrick and Nicholson-Mueller will discuss the research and writing of their book, which explores some of the identities of Mount concerned: people who are largely missing, erased, altered, or caricatured in 19th-century American art.

Each session will be followed by a Q&A segment, a book signing, a presentation of the artwork and a tour of the Brewster home.

“[Kirkpatrick and Nicholson-Mueller] Present research that will make you ask more questions and think about who these people were… What was their life like? Who were the other people who lived here? How were their relationships?” said WMHO President Gloria Rocchio.

The event will take place at the historic Brewster House in Setauket, which Mount painted in Long Island Farmhouses (see cover photo).

Among the people who will highlight the book and presentations is Henry Brazier, the left-handed violinist in Right and left (a portrait very different from the racist caricatures of black violinists typical of the time); George Freeman, the lively musician in The banjo player; Robbin Mills, the attentive audience coming in from the outside The power of music; and Rachel (whose last name will be discussed at the presentation), the even-tempered fisherwoman Skewer eel in Setauket.

Mount’s portrayal of these people is remarkable for its normality. Instead of racist caricatures, then a prevalent American representation of all non-white people, he painted people as they were: members of the local community.

So it’s arguably a little chilling to learn that Mount was not an abolitionist, despite what much of his art might imply, an untimely revelation that Kirkpatrick and Nicholson-Mueller will address in the book and acknowledge in the conversations.

“Mount was a complex man,” Kirkpatrick said. Despite the multitude he contained, Mount’s artistic goals seem simpler: Inspired by historical paintings he admired, Mount painted what he knew.

“Long Island Farmhouses” by William Sidney Mount (1862-63)

And Mount knew Long Island, particularly the Brewster house now owned by WMHO, which was restored in 1968 to look like his painting Farmhouses on Long Island which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mount even parked his mobile studio on Brewster’s property while he painted other farmhouses.

Aside from his appreciation of the landscape, Mount also knew the occupants of the Brewster home. George Freeman of The banjo player and Rachel, from Skewer eel in Setauket, who may have been a Brewster, were only two residents Mount painted, according to Kirkpatrick and Nicholson-Mueller.

While some of the structures in his landscapes, such as the Brewster House, have retained both their facades and history, not much has been coherently published about the people who populated his paintings, many of whom were friends, neighbors and townspeople.

“The power of music”
by William Sidney Mount, 1847

Rocchio sees in “paint and canvas…” a possibility to correct the apparent information vacuum. “I look forward to seeing people’s reactions as they learn more about who lived and worked at the Brewster House…Every time we can come up with new information about the properties we own, we’re incredibly excited.” interested in the projects,” said Rocchio.

It was such a quest for knowledge that first attracted educator and genealogist Nicholson-Mueller to the project. In her quest for genealogical discoveries, she learned that she is likely a descendant of Mount, the Brewsters, and many of the people he captured on canvas, including Mills The power of music.

Having already bonded through a mutual history lover after meeting at a mutual friend’s house, she teamed up with Kirkpatrick, a historical novelist and non-fiction writer who grew up in Stony Brook.

“The Banjo Player” by William Sidney Mount (1856)

“The research was a gift to myself; and it is Vivian’s and my gift to the people of the Three Villages, St. James and Smithtown. The details we’ve compiled will expand people’s perspectives and knowledge of familiar places,” Kirkpatrick said.

Each woman already had ties to the WMHO and wanted to work together on a project. Kirkpatrick is the author of Red skirts and petticoats, a children’s book telling from a young boy’s perspective about the British occupation of Long Island during the American Revolution and the Culper Spy Ring. Research and other projects have brought them into contact with the WMHO over the years.

Nicholson-Mueller has worked as a volunteer lecturer for the WMHO at Thompson House, another historic property it owns. She has also done research on the Brewsters and Thompsons.

So history is both a personal interest and a professional passion for Kirkpatrick and Nicholson-Mueller. “Color on Canvas…” is a continuation of her effort to bring the past alive for a modern audience by expanding the range of people’s understanding.

“I hope people learn about Mount as an individual; about the life and history of the people of color who lived in Brookhaven during this time and have been neglected or ignored,” said Nicholson-Mueller.

Tickets for William Sidney Mount and Long Island’s Free People of Color at the Brewster House are $8 per person; Seats are limited and anyone interested in attending must register in advance by calling 631-751-2244.

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There will be two additional local events to celebrate the book launch The Art of William Sidney Mount: Long Island People of Color on Canvas:

Sunday, October 2nd, The Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A; Stony Brook will host an author talk on October 2 at 2:00 p.m. It will include a presentation by Kirkpatrick and Nicholson-Mueller, as well as a book signing, banjo and fiddle music, refreshments and a gallery tour The banjo player and Right and left will be seen. The fee is the entrance fee. Visit wwwl.longislandmuseum.org.

On Monday, November 14 at 7 p.m., the Three Village Historical Society will host a Zoom talk with the authors. The event is free for TVHS members, but a $5 donation is suggested for non-members. Registration is via www.tvhs.org/lecture-series. For more information, call 631-751-3730.

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