William Sidney Mount offered a rare explanation…, detailing the setting as a Long Island tavern and the three men as the tavern keeper, a traveler, 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.” 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. -- excerpt from the National Gallery of Art’s overview of “The Tough Story — Scene in a Country Tavern”