EXHIBITIONS | On Tax Day—A Little Death, Drama, and Profanity

Posted on Fri., April 15, 2011 by Thea Page
John Harrison Mills, "Artist Painting a Satirical Painting"
John Harrison Mills, Artist Painting a Satirical Painting (detail), ca. 1870s—80s, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 1/2 inches. Collection of Jean and Alvin Snowiss.

A red-caped knight in golden armor rears up on a brave and formidable steed. He thrusts a massive lance toward a newly downed warrior. But wait! Another knight charges from behind with a lethal-looking spear raised high. And, oh no! Lunging in from the fog, straight toward our hero, appears yet another medieval warrior. How will this turn out? It doesn't look good.

A smallish painting by a relatively unknown artist named John Harrison Mills (1842–1916) in the exhibition "Taxing Visions: Financial Episodes in Late Nineteenth-Century American Art" gives everyone a chuckle. Artist Painting a Satirical Painting (ca. 1870–80s) shows a spare, dim studio dominated by a large canvas on an easel. An artist aims his brush at the canvas, which depicts the medieval battle described above. Next to him sits a rapt woman (perhaps a client?) who clasps her hands and leans forward in eager awe of the artist and the work. The satire might be simply about artists and the kind of fluff they have to produce to impress patrons. But there's more. Painted in small white letters over each of the hero's armored opponents is a label. One is "Rent," another "Bills," and a third, on the one who looks most likely to deal the death blow, is "Taxes."

Leo G. Mazow, who co-curated the exhibition and co-wrote the catalog with former Huntington curator Kevin M. Murphy, discusses the work in his essay. He explains that the imposition of a Federal income tax in 1863 was bitterly contested and extensively reported throughout the national press for years. Mills worked at a newspaper—the Buffalo Express—with Mark Twain in 1869. The two likely met there. Twain's first column for the paper complained bitterly about the new tax. Mazow writes, "In telling his readers what they might expect from him, he promised he would not curse, although, he added, the subject of taxation might test him: 'I . . . shall never use profanity except in discussing house-rent and taxes.'"

Ouch! The gouge of the lance, the slap of the paintbrush, and the bite of Twain's pen—still nothing compared to Tax Day.

Thea M. Page is art writer and special projects manager at The Huntington.