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  • Who’s sitting at the table?: William Sidney Mount’s After Dinner 1834
  • Bruce Robertson (bio)

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Figure 1.

William Sidney Mount (United States, 1807–1868), After Dinner. Oil on panel, 1834. 10 ⅞ x 10 15/16 in. Yale University Art Gallery, Stanley B. Resor, B.A. 1901; Christian A. Zabriskie, and John Hill Morgan, B.A. 1893, Funds.

Looking attentively at all the details of an object is one thing; looking at what’s missing, what we don’t see, might seem harder. But even these absences may be coded into the image: the work of art generally lets us know about both what it contains and what it lacks. In this paper I’d like to suggest some of the ways this happens in William Sidney Mount’s After Dinner (figure 1), painted in 1834, and how we might go about discovering the presence of these omissions, and their significance.

In the painting, three people are seated together. While there are differences among them, they share the fact that they are all men. The first absence, then, is women. These men are bachelors—or least, bachelors for the space and time of this painting. They are all the age of bachelors, of young men of marrying age. But they are not all bachelors in the same way, as the painting makes clear in the careful differences of dress and attitude enumerated by the artist. The man on the left has a top hat, bowtie, and vest, and has serious muttonchops. The violinist wears black, and his hair is touselled. The man to the right wears a more elaborate, flowing tie, a more exaggerated topcoat, with large buttons and the collar turned up, and a small knit cap. These represent different types, which may be determined by looking at other paintings by Mount, but types still readable to us today: the successful young merchant, the romantic young artist, the raffish young fellow. Or, to give the list a slightly different twist, the successful professional, the aesthete and the working man. The only real change between the two readings just given lies in the class of the last figure. The possible confusion on this score should not be surprising. In a move still popular today, elite youth expressed sexual bravura by adopting elements of costume closer to the working class, who have seemed to exude a vigor and excitement missing from the upperclass for the last few hundred years; knit caps appear in Mount’s other works only on laborers. 1 In any case, differences among the figures seems submerged in a union of mood, produced by the music which is being played by the central figure.

However, all three men react to the music in different ways, even if it speaks to them in one voice. The violinist is most involved: he looks off into nothingness most emphatically, with a relatively blank expression. Music has moved him most completely. This romantic type is common in the period and generally more successful in love. 2 The merchant-type looks at the musician. His slightly downturned mouth and the way he tests his head, jaw, and ear against his hand suggests that the [End Page 103] music does not move him to a more elevated level; or he resists its pull. The raffish fellow smokes, his head is cocked up and he appears to be watching us, not to invite us in but to challenge our participation.

What is the scenario, the narrative? This is not a family after-dinner scene, nor does it seem to be that moment in polite and wealthy circles when the ladies cluster in one room and the gentlemen in another to enjoy their liquor and cigars. Rather, given the lack of domestic markers of any kind, this must be a tavern or club: these men are not here as brothers and perhaps not even as friends. As they sit after their dinner, enjoying their stimulants, the musician has picked up his violin and begun to play. Even the cigar, as a contemporary put it, serves to “suggest quiet thoughts and makes a man meditative.” 3


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