The year 1825 signaled a new era in American visual arts as artists searched for a national style that was different from the European tradition. The push westward fueled the search for a new national form of expression and for some American artists, like William Sidney Mount, the key to that new expression was held in the soil of the nation itself. In Eel Spearing at Setauket, Mount used pigments that were indigenous to Long Island. He also refused to travel abroad so that no foreign characteristics would become influential upon his paintings. Mount believed that by using pigments extracted from the Long Island soil, he would be better enabled at representing the local color, light and atmosphere of the nation. Many of Mount’s paintings, like Eel Spearing at Setauket, became political statements that expressed the fatal discord within the nation.
Painted for a wealthy New York lawyer who wanted a nostalgic picture of his childhood on Long Island, Eel Spearing at Setauket is one of Mount’s most famous paintings. Painted in the gorgeous morning light, two figures- a little boy and a female slave- fish for eels on the smooth river in Setauket. The manor of the commissioner, the Strong family estate, stands in the background, on the horizon. The slave stands in the foreground and wields a spear as she prepares to spear an eel. The position of her body calls to mind the traditional pose of St. George, the legendary dragonslayer. The boy sits in the back of the boat, watching as the woman spears the eel. The subtle coloring of the sand, water, and landscape speaks to Mount’s fervent study of the Long Island landscape and his use of indigenous pigments. The painting not only represents Long Island, it is Long Island. Reception for Eel Spearing at Setauket was mixed, as some did not like that it represented the young boy’s apprenticeship to a slave. By placing an armed slave at the height of his composition, Mount sullied the accepted agreement of a divinely ordained social hierarchy. Despite the smooth, docile, and geometric quality of the painting, Mount brought forth the fears upon everyone’s mind during this racially charged time in American history. At a time when the question of slavery was in debate, even a woman slave wielding an eel spear could call into question the stability of a nation. Mount succeeded in capturing scenes from everyday life in order to express a new national identity, but he also succeeded in capturing the instability and fragileness of the American nation in 1845.