The Boys Caught Napping in a Field


The ‘Boys Caught Napping in a Field’ painting was done by William Sidney Mount in 1848 during the pre-civil war era. The piece is a representation of the theme of boyhood in the pre-civil war era and how it tied in with the changes taking place at that time. The piece was made in 1848 as a depiction of the mischievousness of the two boys with due punishment represented by the approaching father. The current location of the painting is the Brooklyn Museum. The work is an example of oil on canvas, and an observer can only see one side of it. The work is in a slightly damaged condition most likely as a result of aging. The damaged part is limited to the lower end of the canvas painting that has fine surface cracks. The cracks go through both, the paint and the ground layers and expose the white canvas behind them. However, the coloring is intact, and the image is finished. The condition does not play a huge part in my reaction to the piece since I can still observe major elements clearly.


Formal Analysis

In the foreground, there are four individuals, two adults and two young boys. The boy in the centre has a white shirt and brown trousers on and wears a red scarf; he is sleeping on the right side of the body using his right arm as a pillow. A slightly toppled hat lies close to his head. The boy on his left is dressed in the same fashion except his trousers are a tinge darker; he is in a crouching position seemingly trying to nudge the first boy awake with his right hand. The boy on the left part of the foreground is lying on the ground with his chin cupped in his left hand. He appears to be staring into the distance and is oblivious to the approaching figure. All the individuals are under a big tree from which hangs the head of a goat perhaps to signify neglected responsibilities. The background shows a lake and fades out into the hills and skies.

All the components of the painting look intact as each is effective in the conveyance of the intended message: that of the boys looking tired, lazy and bored. The layout of the figures is distinct and is in the form of wavy lines and shapes. The composition of the piece is balanced and symmetrical in some instances while completely the opposite in others. All figures are shown in their full forms. For the parts cut off, it is not hard to imagine where they lead off to. For instance, the left hand of the approaching figure is cut off but one can easily picture it in his mind. The background looks empty though this is asymmetrically balanced by the fullness of the foreground in that it tends to convey the relaxed feel implied in the contents of the foreground. However, the foreground and its components dominate the image conveying, ironically, a form of imbalance. This is because while the foreground is full of distinct solid elements, the background is soft, almost imperceptible perhaps to convey the negligence of responsibilities by the boys. The color of the background, especially the left part, is visually lighter than the right. Consequently, it does not possess as much weight as the darker and warmer colors used for the figures in the foreground.

The painting conveys a perspective of color. William Mount conjures depth by adjustment of the saturation and the hue colors as the empty space in the back ground regresses into the distance. For instance, the foreground of the piece reflects a typical color saturation; however, as the image travels back into space, there is a colors transition first to a lighter shade of green and then to a bluish tone in the farthest reaches of the composition. Still on the subject of color, Mount's brushwork is mostly modulated. The brushstrokes used in painting the figure of the tree are a combination of dark thick and lighter thin lines. The implied lines lead the observer to notice the head of the goat hanging in the middle of the tree. The background has a softer tone and texture in comparison to the foreground, the texture of which looks rough. The general atmosphere of the painting depicts relaxation, laziness and calmness. It is almost inviting. The hills in the distance appear to be floating; the water in the lake is still and calm. The leaves of the tree are immobile suggesting the weather was calm, possibly a little breezy, and just perfect for a small nap. In general, the observer feels a sense of warmth and relaxation.

Mount has particularly relied on the use of curvilinear lines to describe the hair and faces of the four figures. Seen mostly from the sides, the hair of the rightmost boy consists of symmetrical, continuously placed shallow grooves. The hair of the second boy from the right is also represented in a similar fashion but, with darker and shallower channels than those of the first. The hair of the sleeping boy is unequally spaced, with wider grooves in the middle and seems to be haphazardly arranged due to the position of his head. In all the faces, Mount's depiction of frightfulness and other emotions comes out in his use of texture and color. The pale parts of the faces contrast sharply with the red regions on the cheeks (flushed cheeks), perhaps to convey how the boys react to the father’s approaching figure. However, the rightmost boy seems unaware of the approaching figure, and it seems the color disparities seem more to convey fatigue or almost despair.

The painting depicts a seemingly chaotic use of texture. The smooth texture of the faces of the boys contrasts sharply with that of the face of the approaching figure. Though it has the same pattern of color intensity differences, the same curvilinear lines are used to depict wrinkles and folds of the skin on it. There are extensive vertical folds of the skin on the neck of the father that stand out when compared to the skin of the boys.

Historical Context

William Mount’s painting of the boys caught napping is essentially a form of historical narration. It tempers the prior sentimentalized and nostalgic representation of children with the mischievous behavior of the boys. The painting is, in essence, a quest for an art that expressed American identity. Having just undergone the American Revolution, American art appeared to depict its vision through the art of genre painting. Through this painting, it is possible to see the growth and development of the new republic and its increased interest in the importance of hard work. The depiction of the boys as country boys symbolizes how the Americans perceived themselves at that time and portrayed the image that they wished that the world at large would see.

The three boys appear healthy and tan napping in an idyllic natural setting depicted as a vast background disappearing into the skies. They represent and reflect the spirit and image of the time - a country free and independent of European subjugation, living on the land of vast open spaces and limitless possibilities and opportunities. There was a social gap between those, who worked on the land and the urban citizens. The towns were expanding and becoming cities and the workers in these cities grew wealthier than their poor counterparts who remained in the native countryside to work. Part of the reason for the poverty that existed in the countryside was laziness and a lack of will to exploit the vast resources in the country.

Despite the approaching figure of the father or perhaps a guardian who seems prepared to punish the boys, two of them remain unmoved. One continues sleeping while the other stares on into the distance, oblivious or perhaps rebellious? The image portrayed is that of a new model of boyhood-tough, adventuresome, free-spirited, disobedient and rebellious. The boys are not bad, they are only mischievous. It implied Americans’ vision of their country, crude and unruly in its beginnings but endowed with endless opportunities. The painting stretches off into the skies, the hills reemphasizing untapped potential and possibilities in the land beyond, seemingly in the fast-rising urban centers.

The boy staring into the distance seems to be pondering on what everyone at the time was thinking, ‘what next?' Having freed itself from colonialism from England there were still a lot of issues dogging the country. There was still slavery, and urbanization was drawing young men and women from their native rural environments to search for better sources of livelihood. There was an atmosphere of calmness and hope. However, there was still uncertainty. In the picture, one cannot be sure what lay behind the lake, the hills or beyond the skies. Similarly, the post-revolution American was not sure of his/her future but what seemed to be the only solution was hard work.

William Mount’s painting clearly communicates the value of hard work and discipline. The uncertainty of the era at that time stressed the need for all the members of the community to chip in the building of their country, their communities and themselves. The approaching figure symbolizing due punishment emphasizes the need for discipline in the community. Building the society and the country as a whole requires its members to uphold the virtue of discipline. Each member of the society should serve as a keeper of the other, just like one boy takes on the role of nudging the other awake. The painting communicates a sense of lack of urgency in life despite the largely untapped opportunities in existence.

The richness of the landscape manifested by the green hills and the clear waters do not match up with the behavior of the young boys (napping in a field). It shows that the people who should be at the forefront in the exploitation of these resources are lazy and inactive. Consequently, in some ways the painting evokes feelings of anger and frustration. It is impossible to feel amused or to think highly of an individual who sleeps on the untapped economic potential. It is even more frustrating to realize that such a person possesses the energy, ability and potential to work on such opportunities. All in all, the painting is a representation of the youth in a country, hungry for growth but ironically sleeping on growth opportunities.

What I feel about the work is different from what I would expect from the culture mainly because of the difference in time and perspectives. The country had just absolved itself from the colonialist’s rule of the British and was still in the process of figuring out the way forward. I feel angry and almost pitiful at the manner in which the youth depicted in the image were lazy in picking up tools and starting to reconstruct the society immediately. However, it is highly likely that the community was just taking time to savor the new found freedom and relish it before it decided on its next course of action. The uncertainty of the time could also have been a contributory factor to their relaxed and what seemed to be a lazy demeanor.

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All in all, the piece represents an important element of the link between art and history. Analysis of the work requires that one reminds himself/herself of the critical events that happened in that time and era in the history of the United States and its implications on the culture of the citizens. The work is in a fairly good condition except for the fine surface cracks on its lower end. However, this does not hamper one from completely appreciating everything drawn on it. The asymmetrical balance between the foreground and the background draws the observer to a keener analysis to decipher the implications/reasoning behind the same. The principle themes, as inferred from the painting, are that of boyhood, freedom, defiance, uncertainty, hope and the need for hard work. These correlate with the state of the country at that time having just won its freedom from the colonialists and, thus, in the process of figuring out how to develop itself.

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