Fruit Piece: Apples on Tin Cups

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Fruit Piece: Apples on Tin Cups
William Sidney Mount
Oil on academy board
6 1/2 x 9 1/16 in.
Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection

In this still life, two red apples sit on two overturned tin cups called “dippers” because they were used (in the days before indoor plumbing) to “dip” a drink of water from a barrel. Apples and tin cups were objects that Americans during this era found in everyday life. So why do you think artist William Sidney Mount chose to paint them in 1864?

Soldiers in the Civil War commonly carried dippers like the ones you see here as part of their supplies. And they enthusiastically picked fruit from orchards as they marched, eager for fresh and nutritious food. On a basic level, then, cups held drink and apples were food: the things that kept soldiers alive. But if you’ve ever heard the phrase, “as American as apple pie,” then you know that apples have a deeper meaning for Americans. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a nineteenth century philosopher and author, declared apples “our national fruit.”

The artist donated this painting to an auction, or sale, held by the United States Sanitary Commission (similar to today’s relief organization, the American Red Cross) for the benefit of the Union Army. The Northerners who bought things like this painting at Sanitary Commission events knew that the money they spent went directly to help Union soldiers. So buying a picture with American apples to support American soldiers was more than just buying a painting; it was patriotic.

1. William Sidney Mount had some training, but mostly taught himself to paint. What do you think of his painting Apples on Tin Cups? Do the apples look real to you? What might it have said to visitors at the Sanitary Fair? What else might the objects depicted symbolize? Support your answers with evidence from the painting.

2. If you were buying art to benefit the Union Army, would you rather have a painting like this or a painting of soldiers? Why?

3. Why do you think Americans bought art to benefit the soldiers rather than just giving money to the Union cause?

Further reading:
Brooklyn Museum of Art.  “Healing the Wounds of War: The Brooklyn Sanitary Fair of 1864.”  Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Brownlee, Peter John, Sarah Burns, Diane Dillon, Daniel Greene, Scott Manning Stevens, and Adam Goodheart. Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013, p. 136, 138.

Newberry Library. "Dreaming of Home." Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North.

Weber, Bruce.  The Apple of America: The Apple in 19th Century American Art.  New York: Berry-Hill Galleries, 1993. 

©Terra Foundation for American Art