George Caleb Bingham:
Artist of Missouri and the American Frontier
Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2015
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Fred R. Kline, M.A., Independent Art Historian
Editor & Director
The George Caleb Bingham Catalogue Raisonne Supplement of Paintings and Drawings
7 Avenida Vista Grande, Suite B-7, Santa Fe, NM 87508
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George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) is renowned today as one of the classic artists of the early American West. His paintings rank among the nation’s greatest art treasures.
Bingham can lay claim to being the first outstanding American artist from the “West” (Virginia & Missouri). He is best known for his genre scenes derived from the daily life of what was then the Western frontier. Only five years before Bingham was born, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery had returned from their 1804-06 westward exploration; in 1820, when Bingham was nine, Missouri became the 24th state.
Bingham’s paintings from 1845-55—the decade of his best work—generally relate to life and commerce along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and to the American scene involving the people of Missouri in and around St. Louis, Columbia, Jefferson City, Arrow Rock, Boonville, and Kansas City.
His genre paintings—narratives of everyday life—depicted and immortalized the common man: fur traders and riverboatmen and settlers in scenes of frontier life (which he knew from both tradition and first hand observation); and scenes of the young nation’s democratic process: political campaigning and elections (which he knew from his deep involvement with the Whig party, with Missouri state politics and national politics, and as a seeker and achiever of political office).
Further enhancing Bingham’s body of work is portraiture and landscape painting. His portraits—representing a lifelong pursuit of commissioned work—for the most part depict prominent 19 th century Missourians and provide a singular historical resource. Bingham’s landscapes were at first created as background scenes for his portraits and then fashioned as settings for his genre paintings; many individual works, however, stand on their own and cover the entire range of style then current in American landscape painting.
During a career of 45 years, from 1834 onward, Bingham was increasingly singled out as “The Missouri Artist” and he could in fact be considered the state’s first artist. In Missouri his artistic talent, initially as a portraitist, was highly regarded from the beginning of his career, a rare and encouraging position for any artist, and especially for Bingham who was self taught and self supporting and without academic or artistic connections.
Many of Bingham’s paintings are regarded as iconic American images of 19 th century frontier life. The following works (in chronological order), all oil on canvas and sized in inches, are representative:
“Fur Traders Descending the Missouri” (1845, 29 ¼ x 36 ¼ , Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC)
“The Concealed Enemy” (1845, 29 ¼ x 36 ½ , Stark Museum of Art, Orange, TX)
“Landscape: Rural Scenery” (1845, 29 x 36, Private Collection)
“The Jolly Flatboatmen” (1846, 38 x 48 ½, The Manoogian Collection, Taylor, Michigan)
“Boatmen on the Missouri” (1846, 25 x 30, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)
“Landscape with Cattle” (1846, 38 x 48, St. Louis Art Museum)
“Lighter Relieving a Steamboat Aground” (1846-47, 30 ¼ x 36, The White House)
“Raftsmen Playing Cards” (1847, 28 x 38, St. Louis Art Museum)
“Captured by Indians” (1848, 25 x 30, St. Louis Art Museum)
“Country Politician” (1849, 20 x 24, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)
“Watching the Cargo” (1849, 26 x 36, State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia)
“Shooting for the Beef” (1850, 33 ½ x 49, Brooklyn Museum)
“Mississippi Boatman” (1850, 24 x 17 ½, National Gallery, Washington)
“The Squatters” (1850, 23 x 30, Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
“The Emigration of Daniel Boone” (1851, 36 ½ x 50, Washington University, St. Louis)
“Trapper’s Return” (1851, 26 ¼ x 36 ¼, Detroit Institute of Arts)
“The County Election” (1851-52, 35 ½ x 48 ¾ , St. Louis Art Museum)
“Canvassing for a Vote” (1851-52, 25 x 30, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City)
“Fishing on the Mississippi” (1851-52, 28 ¾ x 36, Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City)
“Horse Thief” (1852, 29 x 35 ¾, Private Collection)
“The Storm” (1852-53, 25 x 30, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford)
“Deer in Stormy Landscape” ( 1852-53, 25 x 30, The Anschutz Collection, Denver)
“Western Boatmen Ashore by Night” (1854, 29 x 36, ex-Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth)
“Stump Speaking” (1853-54, 42 ½ x 58, St. Louis Art Museum)
“The Verdict of the People” (1854-55, 46 x 65, St. Louis Art Museum)
“Jolly Flatboatmen in Port” (1857, 46 ¼ x 69, St. Louis Art Museum)
“Martial Law or Order No.11” (1869-70, 56 x 78, State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia)
“View of Pikes Peak” (1872, 28 x 42 ¼, Amon Carter Museum , Fort Worth)
George Caleb Bingham was born in Augusta County, Virginia on March 20, 1811 on his grandfather’s farm (with its prosperous working mill), son of Henry Vest and Mary (Amend) Bingham. In 1819 the Bingham family moved to Missouri Territory and young George grew up variously in Franklin, Arrow Rock, and Boonville.
When the Binghams moved to a prospering Franklin in 1819, then just two years established on the banks of the Missouri River, there were still vestiges of Spanish, French, and English influence and Osage Indians roamed the countryside (see “The Concealed Enemy”). Here in 1820, nine-year-old George—as he remembered fifty years later—was first inspired to be an artist by Chester Harding, who had taken lodging at Henry Bingham’s inn The Square and Compass. Harding, who became one of America’s finest portraitists, had been in St. Charles County near St. Louis painting a portrait of the aged Daniel Boone, the legendary folk hero whose trailblazing opened up the West for settlement. Having come upriver to Franklin looking for more commissions, Harding was also putting the finishing touches to the Boone portrait. Young George, already showing signs of drawing ability and having an interest in art, was assigned by his father to assist Harding in his needs as he daily worked on the Boone portrait. George no doubt had the exciting opportunity as well to study the various sketches and paintings the artist carried with him. Bingham later in life wrote: “The wonder and delight with which his [Harding’s] works filled my mind impressed them indelibly upon my then unburthened memory.”
In 1823, Bingham's father Henry Bingham died of malaria. This tragedy left his wife Mary and their children little else but their farm across the river from Franklin in Saline County, near Arrow Rock, fortunately where Henry’s brother John and his family had recently settled.
During the next five years in Arrow Rock, Bingham was reportedly tutored by Rev. Jesse Green, a cabinet maker and Methodist minister. From 1828-32, George lived in nearby Boonville, apprenticed to Rev. Justinian Williams (yet another cabinet maker who was also a Methodist minister). The early influences of woodworking with its attendant strict craftsmanship and geometric constructions, as well as that of Biblical literature with its moral teachings and rich narratives, may suggest further insights into the early development of Bingham’s artistic consciousness.
As he matured into his teens, Bingham also gave serious consideration to the professions of lawyer and preacher, traits of which could be seen to characterize his enduring combative and moralistic personality. However, the idea of becoming a painter interrupted these musings and began to materialize as a result of a second meeting, during his apprenticeship in Boonville, with his old friend Chester Harding who gave him some brushes and urged him to try his hand at painting a portrait.
Bingham’s artistic career as a self taught portrait painter began in earnest a little later in Arrow Rock. His early portrait style, seen in 1834-40 examples, was marked by skillfull craftsmanship and strong characterization, and can be judged today as superior to the work of most provincial artists of the period. His later portraits from the 1840s into the 1870s generally conveyed a softer tone and a straighforward likeness. Many, from his early to his late period, stand as exceptional studies of their subjects. Notable examples of Bingham’s portraits include:
“Self Portrait of the Artist” (1834-35, 28 x 22 ½ , St. Louis Art Museum)
“Dr. John Sappington” (1834, 27 x 21 ¾, Arrow Rock State Historic Site, Arrow Rock, MO)
“Mrs. M. M. Marmaduke” (1834, 27 ¼ x 21 ¾, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis)
“Miss Sallie Ann Camden” (1839, 36 x 29 ½ , Private Collection)
“Leonidas Wetmore” (1839-40, 60 x 40, Private Collection)
“John Cummings Edwards” (1844, 36 x 29, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis)
“John Quincy Adams” (1844-45, 30 x 35, The National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC)
“Dr. Benoist Troost” (1859, 40 ½ x 30, Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City)
“Major James Sidney Rollins” (1871, 30 x 25, State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia)
“Miss Vinnie Ream” (1876, 40 x 30, State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia)
Perhaps the fine quality of the two latest examples could be tied additionally to the affection George had for Rollins and Ream. By 1878, near the end of his life, Bingham had painted close to 500 portraits.
Portraiture was by far Bingham's most prolific artistic genre, producing a steady income throughout his career and “kept the pot boiling”, as the artist acknowledged. But he also admitted to the pleasures of friendship and personal relations that developed from painting portraits and he unquestionably gained social status at the outset of his career by his choice of subjects, most of whom represent a veritable Who’s Who of 19 th century Missourians.
Most important among Bingham’s portrait-fostered friendships was one that established an extraordinary lifelong bond with Major James Sidney Rollins, a practicing Columbia, Missouri lawyer close in age to Bingham, whose portrait the artist first painted in 1834. Rollins—who became a wealthy and powerful Missouri politician and “ Father of the University of Missouri”— was Bingham’s first patron and he went on to become his confidant, advisor, political ally, and financial backer to the end of Bingham’s life. In excepts from several late letters, an ailing Bingham writes to Rollins: “I shall never be able to repay you for a …friendship such as few men have the good fortune to be blessed with on this earth…No man could be blessed with a truer and more constant friend that I have ever found in yourself …[a friend who had always given him ]…the tenderest solicitude of a brother.”
In 1845 Bingham began the series of narrative scenes of frontier life upon which his reputation rests. “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri”, the earliest of his masterworks, is still considered his best and most iconic painting. It is also the simplest of his multifigure scenes: it depicts a grizzled pipe-smoking fur trader, a smiling youth, and a tethered baby bear, all posed in a long thin dugout canoe. Out of the wilderness they appear, gliding silently on the placid water, gazing at you and you at them. Indeed, the painting may have been animated in Bingham’s mind like a scene from the moving-picture “panoramas” of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, in vogue since the first 1839-40 exhibitions in nearby Louisville—which Bingham possibly attended during a political trip to Washington, D.C. Bingham traveled constantly and big cities like St. Louis, Philadelphia, Washington, New York were familiar environments where he worked and lived and found artistic stimulation.
Riverboatmen, considered a rough and carefree bunch, were a more familiar sight than fur traders. In his first depiction of them—“The Jolly Flatboatmen” (1846)—Bingham showed the hard working boatmen enjoying themselves as their day began on the river. With their celebration invitingly filling most of the picture plane, the spectator glides along behind them enjoying the moment. Its vicarious joy is irresistible; its classically organized and finely crafted composition becomes for the viewer a clear and memorable image.
It is instructive to recognize in regard to Bingham’s style that no 19 th century American artist created paintings with a more conscious geometrical structure of forms or with a more conscious embrace of the classical Renaissance tradition, a tradition which importantly stressed the artist’s use of model drawings. Bingham used figurative drawings as an integral part of his painting procedure; sometimes as side by side models, sometimes as transfer drawings which were traced onto primed canvas. His drawings went with him everywhere as precious sources for his paintings.
Self taught, Bingham learned deep lessons from the old masters which he no doubt first experienced as prints, perhaps after Raphael’s paintings or Greco-Roman sculpture or from instruction books like Francis Nicholson’s “The Practice of Drawing and Painting Landscapes from Nature…”(1823). Nicholson cited landscape models such as Poussin, Claude, Salvator Rosa and Richard Wilson, and offered such instructions as: “The foundation of drawing and painting from nature should be laid by studying and copying the works of the best masters, in order to ascertain the methods of practice, and principles of construction. With such assistance, the learner will acquire the power of seeing what is most perfect in nature…”
Notable examples of Bingham’s landscape paintings emerge particularly from the 1850s in a variety of styles. “Horse Thief”, “The Storm”, and “Deer in Stormy Landscape” all suggest a strong direction from Thomas Cole and the period of the Cole revival after the artist’s early and widely lamented death in 1848, with “Horse Thief” coming closest to one of Cole’s allegorical landscapes. In a more conservative direction, closer to English country scenes and American counterparts like Joshua Shaw, Thomas Doughty, and Asher Durand, “Landscape with Waterwheel and Boy Fishing” and “View of a Lake in the Mountains” offer his best examples and suggest youthful reveries drawn from Bingham’s growing up in Virginia and Missouri. Only 25 of Bingham’s 50 recorded landscapes have been located and therefore his complete achievement in this field, in which he ranged widely, must await a later judgment.
Poussin’s works clearly inspired Bingham’s thinking about figural compositions, as well as about landscape. Bingham learned well from the masters: his compositions with figures are exceptionally well organized and skillfully posed; his landscapes are arranged clearly and distinctly. Pyramidal formations of figures and a balanced geometrical construction consistently bring a classical order to Bingham’s narrative and landscape paintings. His style could be succinctly stated— a straightforward realistic manner based on geometrical principles and classical models.
Bingham was inspired by many artistic predecessors but his genius invariably transformed suggestion from others into his own original statement.
Starting in 1847 and in a more developed way in the early 1850s, Bingham began his “Election” series of paintings illustrating America’s democratic process and the political life of the Western frontier. The success of these election pictures in their public exhibitions encouraged Bingham to commission engravings of them and this continued to spread his fame around the nation. These prints also importantly supported and illustrated the notion of Missouri’s coming of age within the American political framework, having just become a state in 1820. Many of Bingham’s political paintings exist in duplicate since he made one available for exhibition while a second was in the hands of an engraver.
Two of the most notable Election pictures—“The County Election” and “The Verdict of the People”—involved dozens of carefully organized interacting figures, many of which were modeled from drawings of a wide variety of people that illustrated many physical types, ages, facial features, expressions, and body positions. The drawings with very little variation in size would then be creatively placed—transferred or modeled—onto the canvas; perhaps sketched first, and then painted. Bingham’s artistic method throughout his career involved use of a portfolio of model drawings, almost all of them figurative, many of which he reused interchangeably. Virtually all of Bingham’s extant drawings are deposited in museums across Missouri.
Surprisingly, little evidence of preliminary landscape or portrait sketches have been found, suggesting Bingham must have painted or drawn the landscape elements and portraits directly onto the canvas. It is probable that he also used available photographs to assist with some of his portrait subjects after 1847.
The existence of Bingham’s own early use of photographic records, beginning in 1847 with daguerreotypes of a few of his important paintings, points to an unusual and possibly unique procedure for an American artist of the period. By so doing, Bingham preserved the appearance of what became a lost picture, “The Stump Orator” (1847)—the earliest of the Election series—and in all likelihood used its photographic record along with saved drawings to reconstruct this complicated composition as a new work in 1853-54 titled “Stump Speaking”.
The political genre undoubtedly drew Bingham to study the series of election subjects by the famous English artists William Hogarth (1697-1764) and Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841), from whose widely reproduced works he clearly found inspiration. While Bingham’s paintings do not have the wholly satirical overtones of Hogarth’s, they do have an honest social and political presence of real, imperfect, and melodramatic people interacting in what his French contemporary Balzac called “The Human Comedy”. The paintings—no doubt drawn from Bingham’s own well considered experiences—as voter, party worker, and elected politician—reflect the rough hewn political life of Missouri frontier towns and other American places.
Bingham’s genre and landscape paintings of the “exotic West” became popular in the East largely due to the support of the influential New York-based American Art-Union (active 1839-51). The AAU purchased and distributed Bingham’s paintings, and occasionally distributed engravings of them, to a national membership by lottery. The AAU had a fee-based membership which by 1849 numbered close to 20,000 members. Each year, members received an engraving of a painting by an American artist as well as a chance to win an original painting or “statue” at an annual lottery. Artists were also invited to exhibit and sell works at the gallery in New York City. Bingham’s commercial success began at the AAU in 1845 with their purchase of “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri” and “The Concealed Enemy”—as well as two landscapes “Cottage Scenery” and “Landscape: Rural Scenery”. In 1846, “Jolly Flatboatmen” was purchased and gained enormous national popularity when it was engraved and distributed in 1847 to 10,000 subscribers. In a seven year period, the AAU purchased twenty of Bingham’s paintings. Along with Bingham, the AAU helped further the careers of other notable artists, including William Sidney Mount, Richard Caton Woodville, George Inness, and Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.
Although his life was dedicated primarily to painting, Bingham was always acutely aware of the significant events in the nation’s evolving history and, on more than one occasion, he felt impelled to be something more than an armchair observer. His early self-taught training in law and his skill as a public speaker prepared him for the political arena, but it was more his deep-rooted moral convictions about right and wrong and a strong sense of public duty that stimulated him from time to time to leave his chosen career and seek public office and to work for the public good. Highlights of Bingham’s political career, not including the many times he was a candidate for public office, can be briefly summarized: 1848, elected to a seat in the Missouri state legislature as representative from Saline County; 1862-1865, during the Civil War, appointed Missouri state treasurer; 1874, appointed president of Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners; 1875, appointed adjutant-general of Missouri by the governor (which led to his being called “General Bingham” toward the end of his life).
In 1856, Bingham with his wife
and daughter Clara sailed for Europe, first to Paris, which he found
alien and inhospitable and expensive and even the Louvre disconcerting.
Bingham and his family then went on to a sojourn in Dusseldorf, where
he completed full-length portraits of Washington and Jefferson (a
commission from the Missouri State Legislature, both now destroyed
by fire); the second of three related flatboatmen paintings, “Jolly
Flatboatmen in Port” (1857); “Moonlight
Scene: Castle on the Rhine”(1857, Private Collection); and in
all probability other unrecorded works.
Upon his somewhat reluctant return to the United States in 1859—in the wake of the death of his wife Eliza’s father— Bingham became increasingly busy in Missouri with politics. Most of his diminishing artistic production consisted of portrait commissions along with an occasional genre, landscape, or history painting—most notably the legendary “Martial Law or Order No. 11”. Bingham continued to live a restless nomadic life, constantly traveling in search of portrait commissions, and residing all over Missouri.
In 1877, thanks once again to Rollins, Bingham—now in poor health—was appointed the first Professor of Art at the University of Missouri’s newly established School of Art in Columbia, a largely honorary position that allowed students to observe him at the easel from time to time and to seek limited instruction.
Weakened from a bout with pneumonia in February 1879 and in fragile health thereafter, Bingham died at age 68 in his home in Kansas City on July 7, from “cholera morbus” (a disease, it is noted, that is usually caused by imprudence in diet or by gastrointestinal disturbance).
George Caleb Bingham is buried in the Union Cemetery in Kansas City under a tall monument commissioned by his third wife, the notable Mattie Livingston Lykins. The monument bears a medallion-like portrait bust of the artist carved in relief and an almost obscured inscription: “Eminently gifted, almost unaided he won such distinction in his profession that he is known as the Missouri artist.”
In an 1837 letter to James Rollins, Bingham wrote his credo at the beginning of his career: “There is no honorable sacrifice which I would not make to attain eminence in the art of which I have devoted myself.” Today his childhood home in Arrow Rock, Missouri is a National Historic Landmark and his paintings now hang as national treasures in museums across the United States. Bingham always believed in his own greatness as an artist and against all odds his life became a hero’s journey toward that ultimately gained eminence he sought.
The year 2011 will mark the 200 th anniversary of the birth of George Caleb Bingham, now recognized as an “Old Master” of American Art.
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