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George Caleb Bingham: Social Historian and River Life Painter

American painter George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879) is well recognised for his works that portray frontier life along the Missouri River. Despite being a Virginian by birth, he lived mainly in Missouri. In Bingham’s artwork, commonplace situations like riverboats, landscapes, and portraits are frequently shown. “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri,” one of his most well-known paintings, depicts the untamed beauty of the American frontier and the people who lived and worked there. Bingham was praised for his meticulous attention to detail and capacity to encapsulate the spirit of 19th-century American life. The Realist movement affected his style.  

Besides his creative endeavours, Bingham was active in politics, holding positions as state treasurer and state lawmaker for Missouri. His passion for politics and art frequently collided, and he often utilised his paintings to provide social and political commentary on the events of his day. George Caleb Bingham is one of the most influential American artists of the 19th century, and his creations can be found in galleries and museums worldwide. His paintings are still praised for their aesthetic appeal, historical significance, and realism. 

Bingham’s writings offer insightful perspectives into mid-19th-century American life. His paintings frequently featured commonplace landscapes like frontier towns, riverboats, and the people who lived there.  He captured the American frontier’s social, cultural, and economic aspects through his artwork. Bingham was also politically active, holding state treasurer and Missouri representative positions. His political activity affected the subjects of his artwork, which frequently featured themes of democracy, the spirit of the frontier, and the American identity. 

The realistic and meticulous nature of Bingham’s writing is evident throughout it. Whether it was the scenery, people, or items in his paintings, he painstakingly portrayed their subtleties. Solid diagonals and dynamic movement are standard in his compositions, which entice the eye to enter the scene. Bingham was a well-known representative of the American painting movement, concentrating on capturing scenes of ordinary life. His paintings frequently showed familiar people going about their daily lives, providing an insight into the socioeconomic structure of 19th-century America. 

Bingham enhanced the realism of his scenes by using a naturalistic approach to light and colour in his paintings. Though he usually used muted colours and earthy tones in his palette, his use of light and shadow added depth and atmosphere to his works. 

The Fashioning of a Frontier Artist

The Trappers’ Return-George Caleb Bingham / Wiki

Early in his career, critics and journalists began referring to Bingham as “the Missouri Artist,” a nickname that today seems appropriate for a painter who depicted hundreds of the state’s citizens and captured the character of the Show-Me State in numerous genre pictures. Although born in Augusta County, Virginia, on March 20, 1811, Bingham immigrated to Howard County, Missouri, with his parents, five siblings, a grandfather, and seven enslaved people in 1819. As a young man, he seems to have identified himself as a Missourian and, by midcentury, embraced his nickname as a personal “brand” with very particular nineteenth-century implications. The artist built his national reputation on the understanding that the eastern cultural establishment of the United States equated Missouri with the American frontier and associated the state, on both a romantic and political level, with the expansion of the West. Bingham was a manifestation of the fruits of westward expansion, and his images played a role in promoting the West as a vibrant social, political, and economic region. As Bingham evolved from a provincial portrait painter to an artist of national renown, he exploited his “Missouri-ness” with entrepreneurial gusto, celebrating the growth of the West and bringing a new contemporaneity to frontier painting, writes Joan Stack in the introduction of the book, collection of letters of Bingham, ‘But I Forget That I Am a Painter and Not a Politician’.

In the 1830s, the artist started experimenting with portraits, and after finding success in Arrow Rock and the Boonslick, he looked for more clients. Bingham moved to the bigger Missouri town of Columbia in 1834, establishing a studio and painting several well-known city residents. There, he got to know and paint young attorney James Sidney Rollins, with whom he would go on to have a fruitful and enduring connection. In 1835, Bingham moved out of mid-Missouri, first to Liberty and subsequently to St. Louis, at Rollins’ encouragement. While travelling, he faithfully corresponded with Sarah Elizabeth Hutchison, the young Boonslick woman he married in April 1836. The pair constructed a house in Arrow Rock in 1837 and celebrated the baby’s arrival. 

According to Joan Stack, as an active Whig, Bingham became intimately familiar with using imagery as a propaganda tool, painting banners for William Henry Harrison’s successful presidential campaign of 1840 and Henry Clay’s unsuccessful campaign of 1844. Political imagery associated with such rhetorical concepts as “the American West” and “the common man” appeared frequently in Harrison’s and Clay’s political paraphernalia, and Bingham’s exposure to it may have influenced the fashioning of his own “Western” artistic persona. 

The Wood-boat – George Caleb Bingham / Wiki

Due to his political engagement in Missouri, Bingham may have accepted a state commission in 1844 to paint a large historical picture for the state capitol that showed Andrew Jackson bowing to the law at a courthouse in New Orleans. The plan was narrowly denied in the Senate despite the Missouri House voting in favour. Bingham would have gotten the princely amount of $1,000 for the painting. This large commission would have significantly altered Bingham’s social and economic status. If the artist had gotten it, he might have decided to concentrate his following career efforts on larger historical paintings instead of the more modest genre images that have made him most famous to date. 

Bingham identified himself with the gradual evolution of the American frontier through his passionate admiration of the modern West. Before Texas joined the union in 1845, Missouri was the westernmost state in the country. Bingham, an artist from Missouri, personified the freshly developed civilization in the West. He served as a medium for introducing Western culture to the Eastern audience. Bingham was inspired to participate in the American Art Union’s objective of promoting art creation with particularly American content by the success of The Jolly Flatboatmen and the organization’s backing.  

‘Bingham grew up with enslaved people in Virginia and Missouri and, according to federal censuses, owned three African Americans in 1840 and two in 1850. Nevertheless, Bingham’s artworks and writings indicate that he could regard and depict black people with unusual compassion and sympathy. By the second half of the 1850s, he came to see slavery as morally wrong, and his 1856 letters in the Columbia Missouri Statesman on the subject include the declaration that the institution was “out of harmony with those principles of equality, which lie at the foundation of our great political structure.” In 1857, he wrote to Rollins from Düsseldorf, Germany, declaring that he would “march to the music” of the antislavery Missouri politician Francis (Frank) Blair, whom Bingham hoped would “muster a strong party for emancipation by the time I get back.” When the artist returned to the United States, he adopted a moderate pro-Union position for gradual rather than immediate emancipation in Missouri, a position he hoped would temper secessionist tendencies in the state, writes Joan Stack. 

Life and Art of George Caleb 

‘An artist like Bingham faced a dilemma in attempting to portray formal works of art scenes, events, and experiences quite unlike anything familiar to the producers or the consumers of conventional European art. The “language of art” had not yet developed the requisite “vocabulary” for the American experience. Bingham and others were forced both to adopt and adapt the inherited vocabulary of the Western European visual tradition for their purposes. Ironically, this occurred even as, in Europe, the visual and verbal art trend toward romanticizing and sensationalizing the American frontier was gaining momentum. In any event, one discovers in the works of these American artists a visual device in many ways analogous to what literary critics call the simile. An unfamiliar scene is frequently rendered so that its significance is made apparent to the viewer through some degree of likeness to a picture (or pictures) with which the viewer is already familiar. This visual simile functions like its literary relative: not only is the similarity revealed, but the difference’s uniqueness is heightened in the process, writes Stephen C. Behrendt in his essay, ‘Originality And Influence In George Caleb Bingham’s Art’.

Boatmen on the Missouri- George Caleb Bingham / Wiki

In the case of an artist such as Bingham, the general subject of influence relations in the arts is especially pertinent. Being a self-taught Western painter, Bingham understood that the Eastern establishment governed much of his market and reputation. The consensus among Bingham scholars is that the artist adapted his genre images of river life to whatever he believed would be most successful, that is, most marketable. The relative effectiveness of Bingham’s images in appealing to “both the local pride of the West and the primitivist nostalgia of the relatively sophisticated eastern seaboard” contributed to his accomplishment.  

The artistic legacy of George Caleb Bingham goes far beyond his brushwork. His exceptional sincerity and profundity in capturing the spirit of 19th-century America has profoundly impacted American art and culture. Bingham pushed established artistic traditions and captured the essence of his era via his brilliant depiction of daily life along the Missouri River, helping to develop a distinctively American painting style. 

Bingham’s status as one of America’s most influential painters is cemented by his unwavering devotion to his craft, his investigation of issues like westward expansion, democracy, and the human condition, and his commitment to portraying the democratic ideals of his day. His paintings invite viewers to reflect on the complexity of American identity and history by acting as windows into a bygone period. 

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