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  • American Skippet
    American Skippet
  • General Josiah Harmar
    General Josiah Harmar
  • Appeal to the Great Spirit
    Appeal to the Great Spirit
  • Hong Punch Bowl
    Hong Punch Bowl
  • Barter for a Bride
    Barter for a Bride
  • Artist/MakerNoel, Alphonse-Leon (1807-1884); Mount, William Sidney (1807-1868); Goupil, Vibert, and Company, Paris
  • Date Made1848; after the painting of 1847
  • Place MadeUSA: New York; France, Paris
  • MaterialsPaper; Hand-Colored Lithograph
  • MeasurementsPrint:14 1/2" x 18 5/8"  Paper: 15 15/16" x 19 1/8"
  • Gift of Mr. Stephen N. Dennis
  • RoomThe Walter Thurston Gentlemen's Lounge
  • Accession #1994.0018

The Power of Music (or Music Hath Charms)

The Power of Music is one of the jewels of American art, a painting so touching and embued with such empathy, that it has become an icon.  From the beginning it was praised by press and public alike and, as one critic wrote, “this picture will insure Mount a permanent reputation.”   Its appeal needs no explanation.  The image of the handsome, aging black man listening with deep pleasure and comprehension to the music emanating from within evokes the same response today that it did when first seen:   “We never saw the faculty of listening so exquisitely portrayed as here. . . . He leans his right shoulder against the barn door, . . . and inclines his ear toward the musician; while his eye, looking at nothing, . . . melts with delight at the effect of the ravishing sounds.”   There are two white men inside the barn with the musician, and they too respond to the music, and the critic just quoted describes their responses, but it is not them to whom our attention first goes or long remains.  It is with the black man who listens that we identify.
Part of the collection of the Century Association in New York City for 110 years, the painting is now at the Cleveland Museum of Art.  It has been known by several similar titles, but the title by which it is now universally known may have been suggested by the man who commissioned the painting, Charles M. Leupp, who, while traveling in England in 1845 with his friend William Cullen Bryant, had visited William Wordsworth at his estate.  Nearly forty years earlier Wordsworth had written a poem which he called “Power of Music” and which his visitors surely knew.  Both poem and painting evoke the pervasive life-enhancing effect of music on the human spirit, here specifically the music of the violin: “He fills with his power all their hearts to the brim--/ Was aught ever heard like his fiddle and him?”  This line is representative of Wordsworth’s poem, and it is not chauvinistic to observe that Mount’s painting is a greater work of art.  Although the title is wonderfully apt for the painting, the poem surely could not have inspired it.
Many nineteenth-century American paintings found a second and much wider life in reproductive prints, both engravings and lithographs.  A fine print could spread the fame of a painting and its artist literally throughout the country, to tens of thousands of art lovers.  In the 1840s the American Art-Union commissioned many paintings that were distributed by lottery while each member received an engraving of the painting.  Mount’s  experiences with the Art-Union were few and unpleasant, so he must have been very pleased when the New York agent of the noted French firm of Goupil, Vibert, and Company, seeing the painting at the National Academy of Design in 1847, sought permission from owner and artist to make a lithograph of The Power of Music for international distribution.  The painting was sent to Paris where the “celebrated Léon Nöel” drew it for the lithograph.   The work, perhaps the first American painting published by Goupil, was done with care and sensitivity, and the image was not reversed as often occurs in print reproductions. The American edition of the lithograph appeared in November 1848 in both black and white and hand-colored examples.  The lithographic image, incidentally, is nearly as large as the painting, giving an unusually good sense of the original.
Many words have been written about the socio-political implications of The Power of Music, and the outsider position of the black laborer is certainly an intentional allusion to his place in American society, north as well as south.  But the further effort to diminish the emotional core of the work by parsing the painting for small details and scanning Mount’s diary and letters for evidence of racist bias fails when confronted with the overriding central fact of the painting: the responses of the men, but principally the black man, to the music. 
Never was the power of music more beautifully portrayed than in this rude audience, no longer vulgar, but transfigured.  The music has struck the electric cord, and kindled the latent soul that now shines through every feature.  To idealize such faces, and such a scene, I conceive to be a great triumph in art.  
William Kloss
1. Literary World 1, no. 18 (June 5, 1847):419.
2. Ibid.
3. See Mount’s diary entry, “Year 1847,” in Alfred Frankenstein, William Sidney Mount (New York:  Harry N. Abrams, 1975), 30.
4. Frederick C. Moffatt, “Barnburning and Hunkerism:  William Sidney Mount’s Power of Music,” Winterthur Portfolio  29, no. 1 (spring 1994): 19–42, quotation 24.  This is perhaps the most probing and thoroughly researched article written on the painting in its cultural/historical context, but it is not without unproven assumptions and errors of interpretation.