William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), Eel Spearing at Setauket, 1845
Oil on canvas; 28 1/2 x 36 in. (72.4 x 91.4 cm)
New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown
John Wilmerding, in the Wall Street Journal, rhapsodizes over a pleasant enough America genre painting, dragging in the Ancient Greeks, and homing in unerringly on the real subtext of the painting: the sublimely important themes of race and inequality.
Following a period of renovation and curatorial research, “Eel Spearing at Setauket” (1845) by the American genre painter William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) has gone back on view at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. The star of the museum’s collection, the work is also generally acknowledged to be one of the classics in the history of American art. Why? Because it is both a beautiful and a significant painting. First is its formal beauty, the serene clarity of its composition, organized around its multiple pairings and reflections…
The structure is classical, consisting mainly of stable horizontals and verticals, along with the dominant triangle formed by paddle, boat and fishing spear, reminiscent of a Greek revival pediment dominant in American architecture at the time. The boat is centered in the nearground, parallel both to the picture plane and to the shoreline behind. In its solid volume and monumental stance the standing figure recalls the spirit of Greco-Roman statuary, such as that of the spearbearer. (Mount could have seen casts of ancient sculpture in his years of study in New York.) But the stillness, harmony and sense of equipoise are also an expression of nature’s hold on the American imagination in the mid-19th century, the country’s self-confident spirit, and Mount’s personal celebration of memory and meditation…
“Eel Spearing” appears to be apolitical, though its thoughtful mood and stable structure suit the sense of racial harmony. Mount achieves this by telling his story with characters marginalized in American society at the time — the child, the woman, the black. (Imagine how much more provocative his work would have been had the dominant figure been a black male.)
Wilmerding, astonishingly, overlooks the degree to which small dogs (not to mention: eels!) were not only marginalized in the wicked America of James K. Polk, but remain marginalized today.
Power to the pointy-eared terriers and the slimey anguilliformes!
The insensitive, of course, would say the painting merely represents a pleasant and nostalgic bucolic sporting idyll.