George Caleb Bingham

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Bingham was the first American artist to record life on the mid-nineteenth century frontier in paintings of sensitive social commentary and high aesthetic quality.

Early Life

Known throughout his career as “the Missouri Artist,” Bingham was, in fact, born into a long-established Southern family. Henry Vest Bingham, his father, whose ancestors probably came from England in the latter half of the seventeenth century, married Mary Amend, of German and French Huguenot descent, and they started their married life farming tobacco in Virginia. George, born on the farm, which was just west of Charlottesville, Virginia, was one of eight children. In 1819, Bingham’s father got into financial difficulties, lost his business, and went west with his family to Franklin, Missouri. In 1820, he opened an inn and dealt in tobacco as a sideline. On his death in 1823, the family moved to a farm outside town, where Mrs. Bingham ran a small school.

There is some biographical evidence that Bingham was interested in drawing, but there is no proof that he ever had any formal training. Apprenticed to a cabinetmaker at sixteen, he may have worked as such, and perhaps as a sign painter, and there is some suggestion that he planned to study law. In 1833, he was a professional portrait painter. His early work is awkward and somewhat primitive, and seems to indicate that he was self-taught. Nevertheless, he was able to make a living at it, moving around the Columbia, Missouri, area, and in 1836, he was sufficiently confident to offer his services in St. Louis. In that year, he married Sarah Elizabeth Hutchinson of Boonville.

In the late spring of 1838, he went to Philadelphia, evidently to study. There is no record of him entering any art school, but he did buy a collection of old master engravings and some antique sculpture casts, both of which were commonly used for art instruction at the time. The city itself was rich in examples of international art, and Bingham must have seen some of it. He may have gone on to New York also, since a painting of his, one of his first genre pieces, Western Boatmen Ashore, was shown at the Apollo Gallery in New York in the autumn.

In 1840, he exhibited six paintings at the National Academy of Design in New York. By that time he was technically much more accomplished; already evident in these works is the flair for genre subjects, simple incidents of everyday life, which was to become his distinctive mark as an artist. He also decided to move to Washington, District of Columbia, ambitious to try his skills painting federal politicians. He spent four years, off and on, in the capital, during which he painted portraits of important figures including John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster. By this time, he was a painter of some modest reputation, but he had not produced any works of serious moment. Looking at his Self-Portrait of the Artist, which he had painted a few years earlier, it would be hard to guess that this square-jawed young man with the wide brow and the slight curl in his forelock, rather tentatively painted, would suddenly in the mid-1840’s produce paintings of considerable importance.

Life’s Work

It is, in the main, the painting which Bingham did roughly in the ten years between 1845 and 1855 that has given him his reputation as one of America’s foremost artists. After that time, for several reasons, the quality of his art fell back into competent professionalism, with occasional paintings reminding the art world of his heights in what is called his “great genre period.” During this period, he continued to paint portraits, but his best work was in studies of simple life in Missouri, with special emphasis placed upon the world of the flatboatmen plying their hard trade on the Missouri River. He had anticipated the theme in his Western Boatmen Ashore in the late 1830’s, and in the 1840’s he found a market for the theme, rather surprisingly in New York.

The celebration of the simple life of the American plainsman, trapper, and boatman had already been prepared for in literature in the writing of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Bingham, in a sense, was following the Eastern painter William Sidney Mount in putting that growing admiration for the muscle and sweat of American frontier life into pictorial terms, but in his own way.

The American Art-Union in New York City was dedicated to supporting American artists through purchase, sale, and reproduction of their paintings, and in a seven-year period it purchased twenty paintings by Bingham, all of them examples of his genre themes.

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri was one of the first paintings so purchased, and it stunningly reveals the power of Bingham as a painter, which had never been revealed in his portrait work. It is, at one and the same time, his most powerful painting and the most representative of his studies of those singular men who, in working the river, seem to exemplify an admirable truth about American life. Variations on the theme were to occupy Bingham through the next ten years, and occasionally the theme was to catch the popular imagination in ways which Bingham could hardly have imagined.

If Fur Traders Descending the Missouri has a focused intensity that reminds viewers of Le Nain and slightly awes on sight, Bingham also had the ability to use the theme charmingly. The Jolly Flatboatmen, showing its simple subjects in a moment of dance and song, was engraved by the Art-Union and eighteen thousand copies were sent out to American homes. Part of the secret lay, undoubtedly, in Bingham’s fastidious choice of how he saw the humble boatmen. He eschewed the real vulgarity of...

(The entire section is 2398 words.)