George Caleb Bingham Essay - Critical Essays

Michael Edward Shapiro

George Caleb Bingham

Paul C. Nagel’s essay “The Man and His Times” follows Bingham from his birth in the Shenandoah Valley through the important events in his life: his family’s move to Missouri Territory two years before Missouri attained statehood; his three marriages and the births and deaths of Bingham’s children; his years in Washington, Paris, and Dusseldorf; and the rise of his career.

Barbara Groseclose considers “The ’Missouri Artist’ as Historian,” finding Bingham eager to celebrate the triumphs of democracy in the developing West. His election paintings, for example, present the national idealism in its finest colors, and Bingham’s paintings become a chronicle of the civilizing of a country.

In “The ’Missouri Artist’ as Artist,” Elizabeth Johns stresses Bingham’s accomplishment in landscape painting, establishing his relationship to such other artists as Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and William Sidney Mount. Johns points out how Bingham’s artistry was developed through studying prints and drawing books, citing COTTAGE SCENERY as evidence. Johns finds in the famous painting THE EMIGRATION OF DANIEL BOONE a fusion of Bingham as “Missouri artist” and Bingham as prophet of a nation’s destiny.

Michael Edward Shapiro in “The River Paintings” identifies FUR TRADERS DESCENDING THE MISSOURI (1845) as the first full statement of the mature style of Bingham’s greatest works. In FUR TRADERS and other genre works, Bingham’s subjects look straight out at the viewer, a device that helps account for their immediate appeal. The paintings from 1845 to 1857 produced a synthesis of water, landscape, boats, and people in an unparalleled glorification of life on the water.

In “Bingham’s Geometries and the Shape of America,” John Wilmerding analyzes the importance in Bingham’s compositions of the horizontal and the triangle and especially the pyramid and the sphere. These classical forms represent national life at mid-century in two ways: On the one hand, the American cultural renaissance was at its peak; on the other hand, everyday life in America was in great transition. It was Bingham’s glory to capture this moment.