Blackwell Auctions selling scarce 1850s lithograph of Black musician

Art Daily
Published on
Artist’s depiction of African-American man unusual for the period.
Artist’s depiction of African-American man unusual for the period.

CLEARWATER, FLA.- On September 12, Blackwell Auctions is offering an antebellum lithograph of an African-American musician. The original, titled “The Bone Player,” was painted by New York artist William Sidney Mount (American, 1807-1868) in 1856, only a few short years before the Civil War would — to summarize Lincoln — test the strength of a nation founded on and dedicated to racial equality.

The lithograph can rightly be called rare for several reasons.

First, from a market perspective, there appear to be few examples of The Bone Player (other than the original, which hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston). The only other period version of the litho found online resides in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The lithograph is rare also from the perspective of art history. Just prior to the Civil War, Mount was approached by William Schaus, New York agent for French art publisher Goupil, Vibert & Cie. The firm arranged for five of Mount’s works — three commissioned directly by Goupil — to be copied by lithograph in Paris and published for worldwide distribution. The lithography was done by French artist Jean-Baptiste Adolphe Lafosse. All five pieces were portraits of young men, four of whom are black. Goupil sold its lithographs all over Europe, and Mount was reportedly the only American artist represented in the publisher’s catalog. For a time, it appears, he was the most famous living American painter as far as the European market was concerned, often the only American mentioned in surveys of what was then considered contemporary art.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the piece is rare from a cultural perspective. A 1969 article in the American Art Journal discussed Mount’s treatment of black subjects in his art: “His emphasis on Negroes and music may have helped to create some stereotypes about American life in the European mind, and yet his Negro fiddler, banjo player and bones player are far from the minstrel-show cliche of the happy-go-lucky Black man. Mount was, in fact, the first American painter to recognize the individuality of Black men and give them a place of dignity in art. This is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that Mount … opposed Abolition.” (Prior to the Civil War, Mount apparently referred to abolitionists as “Lincoln-poops,” but after the war started, he moved solidly into the president’s camp.)

Nothing Mount ever wrote in his extensive journals indicated that he ever fully embraced the idea of racial equality. Even so, his depictions of Black subjects were never degrading or cartoonish. The Bone Player is well-dressed, manicured. His expression is relaxed, and he appears joyful and confident, with no trace of that appalling, subservient meekness found in many other 19th century depictions of African-Americans.

Yet there are hints, reminders perhaps, that the subject of the work is no well-to-do gentleman: His vest is ill-fitting, his lapel is moth-eaten, his hat brim is chipped, and three of his four jacket buttons are mismatched. Interestingly the lithograph artist, Lafosse, created a widening seam with a loose thread on the musician’s right jacket sleeve, an element entirely absent from the original painting itself. Perhaps this revision was the result of a discussion between the French lithographer and Mount on how to make the Bone Player’s economic status a little less subtle.

“It’s not often that we have the privilege of handling a historical piece with present-day cultural relevance,” said Blackwell Auctions’ owner. “This is definitely one of those pieces: a pertinent and important work.”

The September sale also includes artwork by Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Peter Max, Joan Miro, Salvador Dali, and others, as well as fine jewelry and watches (Rolex, Tiffany & Co., Cartier, Georg Jensen), art glass (Rene Lalique, Dino Rosin, Loetz, Daum Nancy, Galle, Tiffany, Steuben, Webb, Majorelle, Seguso), and many other unique estate items, over 400 lots in all.