A Bridge of Music
The Iconography in the Painting 'Dance of the Haymakers' (1845) by William Sidney Mount (1807-1868)
Music can create bridges between those in all walks of life. William Sidney Mount was a nineteenth-century American painter and musician who grew up in rural Long Island, New York (Johns). Mount was known as a genre painter attracting fans throughout America and Europe (Johns). Most of his works depict scenes in domestic settings (Johns). A majority of the subjects portrayed in Mount’s paintings are African Americans, farmers, and country folk, those who would be seen as the “common man” in America (Johns). Typically, the people are practicing some form of music. In Dance of the Haymakers, Mount portrays country folk engaged in a variety of activities. Some are dancing to the music played by the fiddler and the drummer boy while others are watching in the background. Mount’s Dance of the Haymakers is a depiction of the African-American man’s role in white society and the racial divide present in American culture shown through the participation of the African-American boy in the music-making, what instrument he is playing, his position in the painting, and how music creates a harmony between the different races.
The act of the African-American boy playing an instrument demonstrates formal teaching. The boy outside seems interested in the scene taking place in the barn. He is playing percussion with sticks on the outside of the building along with the fiddler playing inside. Knowing how to play an instrument during this time period is representative of knowledge and intelligence. Though the boy only has sticks he picked up from the ground, he still tries to participate in the music making. One can tell that the boy has, in fact, been taught how to play percussion by how he holds the sticks in his hands with a traditional grip — one hand palm up and the other palm down. This can be a symbol of African-Americans showing white Americans that they are more educated than what some may believe. By drumming along with the fiddler, the cultures come together, including and welcoming all the folks.
The percussion accompaniment played by the African American boy provides an essential foundation for the music, and this role can be considered equivalent to the black Americans’ place in white society. The boy is helping keep the beat of the dance by playing percussion. There is also a white fiddler present sitting inside the barn. With men kicking up their feet and flinging their hair, we see that the fiddler is playing upbeat dance music. In dance music, percussion is a key component and creates the building blocks of the beat that leads the dancers. This can represent how African-Americans were as important and ingrained in white society as those who ruled it, despite low class they were assigned. In this time period, African-Americans did the undesirable but necessary jobs that white Americans did not want to do that allowed whites to live a good life. The tapping of his sticks added to the music played by the whites, just like the work of the African-Americans added to the heartbeat of our country.
The placement of the African-American boy in the painting alludes to the overall role he plays in a divided society. Although he is deliberately placed outside the barn, he makes up the foreground of the scene with a spotlight emphasizing his presence. The boy is alone outside with the dog, except for some tools leaning on the barn. The placement of these elements suggests that society during this time could have regarded the boy as just another farm tool or animal banished to the outside. Mount places the boy right outside the barn entrance to demonstrate how he wants to be included. The drummer boy is trying to assert himself and participate in that part of life but is still a step lower than the white Americans. This also highlights the idea that music can bring cultures together.
Mount’s Dance of the Haymakers is a depiction of how African Americans were viewed in nineteenth-century white culture. The alienation among races is seen with the drummer boy’s placement in the composition; overall, this painting displays music’s ability to blur the racial lines set by prejudice, creating a harmony in society. The location of the boy in the painting shows his spot on the fringe, but he is still participating in the merrymaking. The boy’s involvement in the making of music reveals his musical intelligence. His drumming is the root of the beat and represents his meaningful and important role in the group. Music in society is quite significant. Mount’s work spread throughout the community and crossed all cultures, teaching the viewers about one another. White Americans and African-Americans may have different cultures and speak different languages, but the language of music is universal and brings everyone together.
Johns, Elizabeth. "Mount, William Sidney." In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed October 31, 2017. http://www.oxfordartonline.com/ subscriber/article/grove/art/T060016.