George Caleb Bingham

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, ca. 1845, oil on canvas, 74 x 92cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, ca. 1845, oil on canvas, 74 x 92cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY

I was born a few years too late to be swept up in the full scale, coon-skin cap frenzy, but the caps hung around long enough for me to want one, and the frontiersman image, the explorer vibe, was thick in the air of my youth. I and my friends often pretended to be Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone or even the Indian, Mingo from the television series. We held incredible battles in the woods throwing dirt clods at each other hard enough to risk serious injury and driving our mothers nuts. The average boy and girl of the late fifties and early sixties knew who all these explorers were, knew names like Mike Fink of the flatboats, and Kit Carson and Jim Bridger. Our country’s rough and rowdy past ate up a huge percentage of television, movies, literature, and music. It was a very different time; indeed, I am only now realizing how truly different it was. How likely is it that many under the age of forty can readily sing a song about a frontiersman? I’ll bet if they can, that the only song that comes to them is the Disney Davy Crockett song. I remember sitting in grade school learning to sing Sweet Betsy from Pike and being tickled to death to do so. Does that happen now?

Shooting for the Beef, 1850, oil on canvas, Brooklyn Museum

Shooting for the Beef, 1850, oil on canvas, Brooklyn Museum

George Caleb Bingham was a great chronicler of America, particularly the America of the mid-nineteenth century. He was self-taught as an artist. He built his career primarily doing portraits for the important or wealthy families of Missouri, but it is his genre art that is most admired today. All of these examples are taken from his most creative period, from 1845 to 1855. After that, his prosperity ruined him by enabling him to go to Europe and study “proper” technique. Oh, well.

The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846, oil on canvas, 96.8 x 123.2cm, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846, oil on canvas, 96.8 x 123.2cm, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

If someone were shooting a modern movie of these scenes, they would probably design things to look dull, brown, and gray. (I often wonder if modern directors and cinematographers were attacked by crayons when they were young, they seem so scared of color.) But look at the splashes of color and style on these people. They were poor for the most part, but by gum they could indulge in luxe color here and there to set themselves a style. Look how rakishly some of these fellows wear their hats. Bingham new what so-called realists and naturalists have forgotten, that at heart we are all birds and we like to display. When you have very little it becomes much easier to keep your few things bright.

Country Politician, 1849, oil on canvas, 51.8 x 61cm, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Country Politician, 1849, oil on canvas, 51.8 x 61cm, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Bingham was also unique in that he was one of the very few great artists who were also politicians. He was elected to office several times and appointed several more. I can easily imagine this scene of pleading for support in some county town so small they had to borrow from elsewhere to come up with three important men in one room. Notice the seating of the three men in chairs. This kind of thing is important with Bingham for he often failed to sign or record his work in ledgers. He did however, repeat himself which sometimes helps in validating his work. A second picture with a similar theme called Canvassing for a Vote uses almost the same posings, but stages it outside on a sidewalk and with a few more characters.

He was not an emotional artist; he has no great message for humanity. But he gives us a glimpse into the people we were, the people many of us still are. It is a fascinating look back at a period of our history that is well worth visiting again and again, if only to float the Missouri with the lowriders.

Boatmen on the Missouri, 1846, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 76.2cm, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Boatmen on the Missouri, 1846, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 76.2cm, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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