More about The Tough Story - Scene in a Country Tavern

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The Tough Story - Scene in a Country Tavern by William Sidney Mount shows a familiar scene.

Many of us have had the unfortunate experience of sitting at a bar, minding our own business, just relaxing after a long day, only to be pounced upon by the dreaded, uninvited person who talks too much. This particular species of barfly doesn’t even really talk TO you, but AT you, as the last two patrons of the pub depicted in The Tough Story - Scene in a Country Tavern are finding out. One of those two people (the man sitting on the right) can’t even call it a night and head home, for he is the bartender, and likely also the owner of the tavern.

The Tough Story, also known as The Long Story, was painted by William Sidney Mount in 1837, and is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Mount was known for his portraits, but he really shined when it came to his genre scenes of American life, especially around his home area of Stonybrook, Long Island. He was no stranger to painting tavern scenes, as shown in the aptly-named Bar-room Scene at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Speaking of strangers, Mount sometimes liked to paint a particular character that has been described as the “Mount Mysterious Stranger,” a person who may or not be in the main scene, but is not a participant. This perfectly fits the standing man with his hat covering his eyes and his back turned away from both the storyteller and the tavern keeper; other examples of this archetype include The Raffle (Raffling for the Goose) and possibly California News. Mount may have done this because, while he often traveled to New York City, he wasn’t a big fan of the squalor, crowds, or unfriendliness he sometimes encountered. Then, when he returned to Stonybrook, he would grumble about the problems of living in a rural area, as well as the separation he felt from the other townspeople.

Mount seemed to praise the barkeep, describing him as “regular-built” and “who amongst us is often a General or Judge or Postmaster, or what you please as regards standing in society, and as you say has quite the air of a citizen.” He wasn’t as kind to the man telling the story, calling him an “old invalid… [who has] fairly tired out every other frequenter of the establishment.”

The Tough Story was painted for Mr. Robert Gilmor Jr., a merchant, ship owner, and prominent art collector from Baltimore. The tile of the painting was originally The Long Story but was later changed to the current one to comply with the American Paintings Catalogue policy, which reverts a title back to that of when the painting was first published or exhibited. (This probably happened when the painting was in the possession of the Corcoran Gallery of Art).

Most of Mount’s patrons were wealthy businessmen from urban New York City who wanted pictures of the rural and bucolic parts of New York where Mount lived and worked. Mount was generally happy to oblige, as his work purposely appealed to a broad audience; in one of his notes to himself, he wrote, “Paint scenes that come home to everybody. That everyone can understand… never paint for the few, but for the many. Some artists remain in the corner by not observing the above.” It looks like Mount hit upon a formula for success with this philosophy, for he was one of the most popular artists of his day.