The New York painter William Sidney Mount painted this intimate, comically vibrant picture in 1835. Along with Raffling for the Goose and Eel Spearing at Setauket, Bargaining for a Horse is one of Mount’s great works and a striking example of early nineteenth-century American genre painting at its best.
Mount (and other artists like George Caleb Bingham) captured contemporary scenes of rural American life at the cusp of the country’s transition into urbanization and modernity. Mount’s childhood home in Long Island, once pastoral and sleepy in its cozy insularity, became—like many parts of America—changed by the presence of expanding railroad networks. Mount’s specialty as an artist lay in his ability to document the last remnants of the old Yankee culture of the New York countryside before the Yankee became gentrified and adjusted to the cosmopolitan demands of the nineteenth century (Yankee a refers to people from the northeast—especially those descended from colonial New England settlers).
Mount’s ambition to be a history painter
Though a renowned painter of genre scenes, William Sidney Mount had initially set out to be a history painter like Benjamin West. Mount was born into a wealthy land-owning family in Long Island in 1807. When his father died seven years later, Mount was sent to live with his uncle, Micah Hawkins, a successful wholesale grocer. At seventeen, Mount was an apprentice to his brother Henry, a sign painter. He took drawing courses at the National Academy of Design in New York, where he learned to appreciate the work of the Masters of European art and acquired an appreciation of landscapes and history painting. However, Mount’s first major work, a biblical scene, Christ Raising the Daughter of Jairus, received little critical attention when it debuted in 1828.
During the 1820s, a wide variety of landscape and genre prints circulated across the United States. Prints of rustic genre scenes by the Scottish painter David Wilkie were particularly popular with contemporary European and American audiences. Wilkie’s success convinced Mount to turn his attention to genre painting.
Bargaining for a Horse
In Bargaining for a Horse, we see two farmers, both well-dressed and seemingly prosperous, discussing the price of a chestnut mare that the man in the red waistcoat hopes to sell to the man in yellow. The younger man in yellow wears a battered top hat—indicating that he is perhaps a visitor to the farm. Both men are discussing the price of the horse while they “whittle,” or carve sticks of wood with their pocket knives (a popular pastime for men of all ages living in the country). The horse stands at the left tied to the barn door as the shadows stretch into the barn on the right. The demarcation of sunlight across the two men and the horse is a spotlight and creates a stage space for the unfolding comedy. It is likely that someone is going to be short-changed for the horse, but such is the nature of the comedy and the satisfaction within the audience’s suspense. Part of the engine of the comedy is the trap that is being set for the unsuspecting patsy. The scene’s humor also comes from the fact that the men are bargaining with one another while casually scraping away at wooden sticks, subtly masking their masculine authority and aggression in the guise of a popular childhood pastime.
Though the barn and its surroundings (notice the angled slant of the pitchfork on the right) frame the two “actors,” Mount is particular about rooting the scene in the countryside. A woman observes the horse trading from the distant background. She stands behind a split-rail fence underneath several immense trees. In some ways, she is perhaps a stand-in for us, the viewers of the painting. Mount always understood that, like a playwright, he was staging something for an audience, and the placement of the figure in the distance is a sly nod to this realization.
In the nineteenth century, the term “horse-trading” was often a colloquialism for back-room political deals. In the period between 1812 and the Civil War, the dynamic changes in the United States—its urban population growth, the nationwide expansion of railroads and industries, and Westward expansion (the Oregon Trail began in the 1830s)—led to an assertive forcefulness and toughness in the American character, associated in some ways with the presidency of Andrew Jackson and the toughness of the frontier spirit that Jackson exemplified. William Sidney Mount is showing us only a glimpse of this type of personality through the lens of his idea of the rural New Yorker, the New York Yankee so exemplified in the stories of writers such as Washington Irving and the poems of John Pierpont.
The resourcefulness of the Yankee merchant or farmer depicted in Mount’s paintings such as Raffling for the Goose (1837, above) and other similar images, is a reflection of the entrepreneurial drive and energy of many Americans in the 1820s and 1830s. In her book American Genre Painting: The Politics of Everyday Life, the art historian Elizabeth Johns describes a character we often see within Mount’s paintings—the Long Island Yankee farmer-merchant—as an emblematic figure of American enterprise. With the growth of urbanization across agrarian towns in the 1830s, and the rise of immigration to the United States from countries in Western and Central Europe, this Yankee figure—often a stage caricature in comic plays who went by the name of Jonathan Ploughboy—became a quasi-nativist representation of small-town cunning and ingenuity. As the United States became more multicultural and diverse, its population sought to redefine aspects of the national character. What precisely made an American, “American”? “With the triumph of the Democrats in national politics in 1828 and the intoxicating expansion of the economy in the early 1830s,” writes Johns, “enthusiasts envisioned a great harmony of individual enterprise and respect—an official recognition at least of the importance of the common man.”
William Sidney Mount’s uncle was an actor in the New York theater world in the early 1810s, and theatricality pervades many of Mount’s paintings. In Bargaining for a Horse and Raffling for the Goose, there is an element of playful humor rooted in the art of the swindle. Mount painted Bargaining for a Horse for his patron, the New York dry goods magnate Lumen Reed, who he had met in 1834. Reed was a keen collector of contemporary art and had become a patron to Asher Durand and Thomas Cole. The original title of the painting was Farmers Bargaining, but Edward Carey changed the title to the more descriptive one we use today when he published an engraving of the image in 1840.
Alfred Frankenstein, Painter of Rural America, William Sidney Mount, 1807-1868 (The Suffolk Museum at Stony Brook, 1968).
Elizabeth Johns, American Genre Painting: The Politics of Everyday Life (Yale University Press, 1993).
Elizabeth Johns, “The Farmer in the Works of William Sidney Mount,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 17, no. 1 (Summer 1986).
Angela Miller, Janet Berlo, and Bryan Wolf, American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (Pearson, 2007).
Marianne Doezema and Elizabeth Milroy, ed., Reading American Art (Yale University Press, 1998).
Barbara Novak, American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism and the American Experience (Oxford University Press, 2007). William T. Oedel and Todd S. Gernes, “William Sidney Mount” in Reading American Art, ed. Marianne Doezema and Elizabeth Milroy (Yale University Press, 1998) p. 146.