Bone Player or Human Being: “Had he been a Minstrel?”

Painting by William Sidney Mount finished in 1856 depicting an African American musician playing a historically typical minstrel instrument.

Painting by William Sidney Mount finished in 1856 depicting an African American musician playing a historically typical minstrel instrument.

William Sidney Mount’s The Bone Player depicts an African American musician playing a musical instrument historically used in Minstrel shows in the late 19th century America in a way that walks the line of the slavery debate. This instrument is described in the eviction scene of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.

The Bone Player is depicted life-like and with very realist characteristics, unlike other depictions of African Americans at the time. This painting was completed in 1856, just before the beginning of the civil war, a time when the debate over slavery was a source of major tension in the country. The musician is depicted wearing neat but otherwise plain clothing and a hat that looks worn and old. He wears a pink neck bow and a buttoned vest beneath his jacket. He has an earring in each ear and what looks like the tether of a pocket watch barely showing below his right arm across his chest.

The actual musician is not caricatured, as other paintings from the time were. He has smooth skin and proportionally sized features. The player is smiling, displaying a row of white, straight teeth. His teeth are not exaggerated, nor are his lips. He has a trimmed goatee and high cheekbones. The player has clean, trimmed fingernails. In each of his hands he has a set of knocking bones, with one bone held between the index finger and the middle finger and its pair held between the middle finger and the ring finger. The bones appear to have some kind of decorative carving on the convex side.

This painting is interesting, as is noted by the exhibit in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, because it displays its subject with a sense of respect. There is no feeling of mockery or caricature. American art from the pre-civil war era that had African Americans as its subject portrayed them in a “sambo” fashion with exaggerated physical characteristics which conveys a sense of disrespect. It would suggest that the artist held a kind of reverence for musicians, regardless of skin color. With that being said, there are factors of the painting that lend themselves to racism of the time, such as the title of the work – The Bone Player – which places the skill, rather than the musician, as the real subject of the painting. Furthermore, the skill itself was typical of minstrel shows, which did not portray a favorable image of African Americans.

It is arguable then that Mount painted this depiction of The Bone Player as an artist typically would – for the purpose to please a general audience of both Southerners and Northerners so that he might sell his work. Indeed, the work was commissioned as a part in a series of paintings by the printing group Goupil and Company destined to be lithographed for circulation in Europe.

This painting teeters between typical dehumanization of African Americans through art and a unique representation of a musician who possesses distinct personal qualities.  William Sidney Mount strategically painted The Bone Player in an attempt to please both sides of the slavery debate.
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