In the years leading up to the Civil War, William Sidney Mount was America's most celebrated painter of genre scenes, which are views of everyday life. His work was admired for its ability to amuse audiences with complex verbal puns and stereotypical American characters. Messages in his works were often veiled, requiring viewers to puzzle out the meanings on their own. Mount offered a rare explanation for The Tough Story in a letter to his patron Robert Gilmor Jr., detailing the setting as a Long Island tavern and the three men as the tavern keeper (right), a traveler (standing), and an "old invalid . . . entertaining his young landlord with the longest story he is ever supposed to tell, having fairly tired out every other frequenter of the establishment."
As a painting about conversation, this is a work that marries content with form. The barfly's exhausting tale is echoed in the room's empty space, its dullness matched by the monotonous colors of the wall and floorboards. Although the men are united in a classic triangular composition, the stovepipe at the center divides their space. On the left, damage and decay surround the storyteller, apparent in the bandages around his neck and knee, the worn hat, and his broken chair. By contrast, the other two men share more comfortable surroundings, including warmth from the glowing stove and the well-stocked tavern shelves. This separation invites the viewer to laugh along with the pair on the right, perhaps at the storyteller's expense. This painting was well received by its patron and critics alike. Proud of his successful marriage of form and content, Mount referred to this work as his "most finished painting yet."
lower left: Wm. S. Mount - / 1837
Commissioned 1837 by Robert Gilmor, Jr. [1774-1848], Baltimore; by descent to his nephew, Charles Smith Gilmor [1817-1866], Baltimore; (Freyer & Bendann, Baltimore); purchased 20 October 1874 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- Thirteenth Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, 1838, no. 308.
- Fifth Exhibition of the Artists' Fund Society of Philadelphia, 1840, no. 38, as The Old Story.
- First Annual Exhibition, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, 1848, no. 208.
- 8th Annual Exhibition: Foreign Paintings from Private Galleries: Pictures Belonging to the Gilmor Family, Maryland Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts, Baltimore, 1855, no. 14.
- World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, no. 198, as The Long Story.
- American Painting from 1700 to 1900, Newark Museum, 1930-1931, unpublished checklist, as The Long Story.
- American Genre: The Social Scene in Paintings and Prints (1800-1935), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March-April 1935, no. 77, as The Long Story.
- American Life in a Century of American Art, Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, November 1935, no. 29, as The Long Story.
- Exhibition of American Painting, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, June-July 1935, no. 176, as The Long Story.
- Main Currents in the Development of American Painting, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, 1936, no. 32, as The Long Story.
- Golden Gate Exposition, Fine Arts Building, San Francisco, 1940, as The Long Story.
- Catalogue of an Exhibition of Drawings and Paintings by William Sidney Mounty, 1807-1868, Brooklyn Museum, 1942, no. 45, as The Long Story.
- William Sidney Mount and His Circle, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1945, no. 4, as The Long Story.
- The Mount Brothers: An Exhibition, Suffolk Museum, Stony Brook, 1947, no. 70, as The Long Story.
- An Exhibition Commemorating Robert Gilmor II of Baltimore (1774-1848), Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, unpublished checklist.
- American Processional, 1492-1900, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, no. 138, as The Long Story.
- Life in America, Denver Art Museum, 1951, unnumbered catalogue, as The Long Story.
- Rediscoveries in American Painting, Cincinnati Art Museum, 1955, no. 65, as The Long Story.
- Exhibition of American Classics of the Nineteenth Century, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh; Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; Baltimore Museum of Art; Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, 1957-1958, no. 16, as The Long Story.
- Loan Exhibition. Masterpieces of the Corcoran Gallery of Art: A Benefit Exhibition in Honor of the Gallery's Centenary, Wildenstein, New York, January-March 1959, unnumbered catalogue, repro., as The Long Story.
- The American Muse: Parallel Trends in Literature and Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, April-May 1959, no. 126, as The Long Story.
- Past and Present: 250 Years of American Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1966, unpublished checklist.
- Painter of Rural America: William Sidney Mount, 1807-1868, National Gallery of Art, Washington; City Art Museum of Saint Louis; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, 1968-1969, no. 12, as The Long Story.
- Corcoran [The American Genius]. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1976, unnumbered catalogue..
- La Pintura de los Estados Unidos de Museos de la Ciudad de Washington [Painting in the United States from Public Collections in Washington], Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, 1980-1981, no. 9, as The Long Story.
- Of Time and Place: American Figurative Art from the Corcoran Gallery, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Cincinnati Art Museum; San Diego Museum of Art; University of Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington; Hunter Museum of Art, Chattanooga; Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa; Portland Art Museum, Oregon; Des Moines Art Center; Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, FL, 1981-1983, no. 2, repro., as The Long Story.
- The Taste of Maryland: Art Collecting in Maryland, 1830-1934, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1984, no. 13, as The Long Story.
- The Century Club Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1993, unpublished checklist, as The Long Story.
- William Sidney Mount: Painter of American Life, New-York Historical Society, New York; Frick Art Museum, Pittsburgh; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, 1998-1999, unnumbered catalogue, as The Long Story.
- Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art, 1770-1950, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2004-2005, unpublished checklist.
- Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no. 17.
- The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unpublished checklist.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013-28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
- New Eyes on America: The Genius of Richard Canton Woodville, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, 2013, unnumbered catalogue.
- Macleod, William. Catalogue of the Paintings, Statuary, Casts, Bronzes, &c. of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1882: 62, no. 67, as The Long Story.
- Macleod, William. Catalogue of the Paintings, Statuary, Casts, Bronzes, &c. of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1887: 64-65, no. 67, as The Long Story.
- Corcoran Gallery of Art. Handbook of the American Paintings in the Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1947: repro. 28, 29, as The Long Story.
- Corcoran Gallery of Art. Masterpieces of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1959: 49, repro., as The Long Story.
- Strong, Lisa. "William Sidney Mount, The Tough Story - Scene in a Country Tavern." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 17, 30, 82-83, 107, 258-259, repro.