The United States in the mid-1800s was a time of great political and social turmoil. Nowhere was that more apparent than in Missouri.
The state was a dividing line between the political differences of North and South, and the Mississippi River was a barrier between the urbanized East and wild and open West.
Yet one of the great painters from this period and this area, George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), painted the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and the people who worked them with the zeal of a huckster. He glamourized river travel and the riffraff who worked the waterways.
The Amon Carter Museum of American Art recently opened “Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River,” a survey of the artist’s riverboat paintings from 1845 to 1857.
Bingham’s hyperbolic scenes of rosy-cheeked stevedores’ dancing and fiddle-playing look like the chorus to Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat. These fellows (and they are always men) look as if they will begin cartwheeling across the stage, leaping across hay bales and ending with a finale of jubilant jazz-hands at any second.
Even his compositions are similar to a stage set, with the flat-bottomed riverboats the stage, viewed from aft, as if the boat were the proscenium.
Politically, Bingham was a Whig, the party that championed economic protectionism and modernization (later folded into the Republican Party), so he was painting a whitewashed enticement to hesitant Easterners to move west, as their passage would bring them through Missouri and stimulate the local economies. As most of Bingham’s income was derived from portraiture, this influx of new blood was also in his best interest.
Bingham was a self-taught artist and is suspected of painting as many as 500 portraits, but he neglected to sign his paintings, so the actual number is debatable. Only 25 of his 50 large landscapes have been identified. There may well be Binghams languishing in attics across the Midwest.
His riverboat paintings are his most famous works, and he had a stock company of characters that he used to depict the river workers. Bingham made rigorously detailed drawings in his studio of men he dressed in appropriate garb.
The most interesting aspect of the Carter’s exhibit is the research done by Claire Barry and Nancy Heugh examining the drawings and then comparing them to the under-layers of Bingham’s paintings with the aid of infrared examination.
Barry and Heugh’s research illustrates this with one Bingham drawing of an old man, seated in profile and holding an oar. His legs were not rendered, as he was going to be in a canoe for the painting. Bingham used this character in both Fur Traders Descending the Missouri and The Trappers’ Return with the slight variations of costume and facial expression.
There are 16 riverboat paintings in the exhibit and 50 preparatory drawings. Many of his characters appear in multiple paintings, and it is one of the challenges of the exhibit to find them throughout the galleries.
Another aspect of Barry and Heugh’s research shows the way Bingham would change his composition during the painting process. All of these studies are made possible by advanced technology and are shown on computer tablets mounted on the wall.
This combination of historical artwork with contemporary research presented digitally is a way of appealing to a broad spectrum of visitors and will no doubt become prevalent with exhibits that have a strong research component.
Bingham moved from riverboat scenes to political gatherings as his life took on more civic responsibilities. He was elected to the Missouri General Assembly, and he accepted political appointments. During the Civil War he was appointed state treasurer of Missouri and later served as Kansas City chief of police. He was appointed the first art professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and shortly thereafter died in 1879.
Bingham was an interesting character — a self-made man, self-trained artist and a loquacious narrator of his dramatic times.
The exhibit will travel to the Saint Louis Art Museum in Missouri, then to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.