American Artists: George Caleb Bingham (United States, 1811-79)


Figure 1.--Among Gorge Bingham's great images are life on the Missouri/Mississppi. These are images from his boyhood rther from the period that he painted. Bingham grew upin central Missoui. Franlin and Arrow Rick we located at some fistance from the Mississippi, but Franklkn was near the Missouri and and Arrow Rock was right on it. Ninghan\m's paintingsare some of the best if not the best of this early period of American hitory. This is 'Raftsmen Playing Cards' (1847).

George Caleb Bingham was an American artist whose genre paintings of American life in the early frontier lands along the Missouri River. George was born in August County, Virginia (1811). The family moved to Franklin, Missouri when George was still young (1819). We know very little about his boyhood, but losing his father at an early age must have been amajor trauma. At the time families were largely on their own. Missouri on the west bank of the Mississipi River at the time was the frontier. Therewas virtually no settlement beyond Misouri. It would be one of the first states to enter the Union a year later as part of the Missouri Compromise (1820-21). George's father died soon after the family settled in Missouri and the famuly moved to Arrow Rock. Bingham as a teenager became an apprentice to a cabinetmaker in Boonville (1827). He decided he wanted tob be an artist. He was largely self-taught. He studied briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He then tried making a living from painting portrits and also did genre paintings of frontier life. He began painting just as Daguerreotype photography appeared. But photography was at first almost exclusively portrait photography. Bingham's work provides wonderful genre view of the pre-Civil War frontier lands. He did not produce larger numbers of the these frontgier images, but the ones he did paint are invalyuable windows on life on the frontier and he early American Republic. He also painted some Civil War scenes. He joined the Federl Army. Missouri ws a border state. Slavery was legl, but the state did not seceed. His most important Civil War work was 'Order No. 11' painted after the War (1868). Bingham painted in the Luminist style. He was not in the 19th century given much attention, perhaps because his portrait work was not destinctive, Bingham was was rediscovered in the 1930s and today is one of most important American artists providing us realistic views of mid-19th century America. He did not focus particularly on children, but they are mixed in with the people in his genre scenes, especially boys.

Parents

George'd parents was the second child of Mary Amend and Henry Vest Bingham. Both parents were educated people. Mary's father Matthias Amend was the prosperous operator of a mill. He also owned 1,180 acres of agricultural land, and several slaves. When Henry married his daughter, he transferred ownership to his son and law with the condition that he could live with the family. Henry subsequently offered the land and mill as surety for a friend's debt. Wgen the friend died (1818), all the property was was lost and the family was left nearly pennyless. It is at this time that Henry decided to move his family to the frontier and start over. They settled in Franklin located in central Missouri.

Childhood

George was born in August County, Virginia (1811). He was the second of seven children. The family moved to Franklin, Missouri when George was still young (1819). We know very little about his boyhood. The family arrived in Franklin with virtually no money. His father was, however, an educated man and became a then judge of Howard County Court. He contracted malaria and unexpectedly died (1823). He was inly 38 years old. Losing his father at an early age must have been a major trauma. And it meant that the family was left without any means of support. The family moved to Arrow Rock, neark Franklin but right on the Missouri River. At the time families were largely on their own. Missouri on the west bank of the Mississipi River at the time was the frontier. There was virtually no settlement beyond Misouri. It would be one of the first states to enter the Union a year later as part of the Missouri Compromise (1820-21). While we know very little about Gerorge's boyhood experiences, his great river paintings show the powerful influence the Frontier abd River had on him.

Education

We know nothing about Gerorge's education. Both parents were ell educated so soje attention must have been given to the education of their childen. To support the family, the widi\owed Mary Bingham opened a school for girls. George was 12 years old at the time. Sources describe him working as the school janitor, but this must not have been a full time job. You would excpect thathe continued his education at his mother's school.

Apprenticeship

After helping his mother with the school or 4 years, George at age 16 years apprenticed with cabinet maker Jesse Green to learn a trade. Green moved after a while, but George continued his apprenticed with another cabinet maker, Justinian Williams. Both Gen and Williams were Methodist ministers. Bingham while learning carpentry also studied the Bible and other religious texts. He preached at camp meetings and gave some thought to becoming a minister himself. He also gave some thought to considered becoming a lawyer.

Interest in Art

George from an early age enjoyed drawing and had obvious talent. As a boy 9 yeas old soon after moving to Missouri, George met the famous portraitist Chester Harding who was visiting Franklin looking for commissions. Harding had recently sketched Daniel Boone in Warren County, Missouri. Boone had also made hisway to Missouri. George assisted Harding during his brief stay in Franklin and it made aermanent impression on the boy. Bingham as a teenager became an apprentice to a cabinetmaker in Boonville (1827). This was in part to keep the family going. But it was painting that interested him. He decided he wanted to be an artist. He was largely self-taught.

Early Career

He tried with vey little training to make a living from painting portrits. Bingham while still working as an apprentice cabinent maker with no art training began painting portraits (about 1830). Photography had not yet been invented. He charged $20. They were primitive works, often completed in a single day. He managed to find clients in both Franklin and Arrow Rock. While his work was very basic and he was just developing his artistic skills, his clientswere satisfied, impressed with his draftsmanship and inate ability to capture a likeness. St. Louis was at the time beginning to develop as a city and hewanted to setup ahop there. It is at this time that contracted measles. This left his weak and he lost his hair permanently. He began painting just as Daguerreotype photography appeared. But photography was at first almost exclusively portrait photography.

Famlily

Bingham married Sarah Elizabeth Hutchison (1836). They had four children over the next 12 years. They lived in a purchased a home in Arrow Rock (1837) and lived tgere together (until 1845). Their eldest son, Newton, atage 4 years old. heir home has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Sarah died (1848). She was only 29 years old. Bingham's mother Mary assisting him in rising the children, but she died (1851). Bingham married two more times, first to Eliza K. Thomas. Eliza proved to be mentally unstable. Bingham had to institutionalize hr. She died in mental asylum (1876). He finally married a widow Martha Lykins, who survived him, living until (1890).

Developing Career: St. Louis (1838-56)

Bingham began to make a name for himself as a portrait artist in St. Louis (late-1930s). This was the major city in Misouri and would eventially become on of Americ's major cities. Prominent Missiorins begn giving him commissions. The respected lawyer James S. Rollins, who was one who had his portrait done. The two men became life-long friends. While he increasingky worked in St. Louis, Bingham kept his principal residence in Arrow Rock where the fmily remained. Until this time, Bingham was entirely self taught. Bingham arranf\gd to spend spend 3 months in Philadelphia, studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He then traveled to New York to visit the National Academy of Design exhibition. Frontier people had no exposure to fine arts. There wee no museums to visit. And publishing was just begnning to create high-quality illustrations of master works done s black and white engravings. This the trip east exposed Bingham to mastr orks for the first time. After returming to Missori, Bingham moveding his family to St. Louis permanently, Bingham ran for and was elected to the Missouri General Assembly (1848). He is one of the few artists to serve in an elected political office. His interest in politics can be seen in the vivid depictions of American political life on the frontier. These are some of the earliesr such deictions. These and his Missouri River painings are today seen as his greatest works. They are wonderful genre paintings of frontier life. Bingham's work provides wonderful genre view of the pre-Civil War frontier lands. He did not produce larger numbers of the these frontier images, but the ones he did paint are invaluable windows on life on the frontier and he early American Republic. Many are images from his boyhood, such as flatboats on the Mississippi, are trapers bringing their furs to market. By the time he moved to St. Louis, great steamboats had begun to ply the Mississippi, but he did not paint them. In addidion to the genre works, he also did some historical works. The best known is 'Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap' ( 1851–52). We are not sure who he did te genre paintings for or to whom he sold them, but we know some were commissioned from the Missori state legislature. He also painted at least one Civil War scene, but not a glorious one. Bingham painted in the Luminist style. Bingham later served in several appointed positions as well. Almost all his great paintings wwre done in St. Louis (1840s-50s). He did not stop paintings, but his subsequent works were for the most part not the great genre paintings for which he is so well known.

Europe (1856-59)

Bingham moved to Europe with his second wife Eliza and youngest daughter (1856). By this time he was a prosperous who could fufill his great dream of vieing thework of the great masters. . They went first to Paris wheethey stayed several months. Bingham studied the Old Masters at the Louvre Museum. Then they went on to Düsseldorf, Germany. They liced there for more than 2 years (until 1859). He became active in the Düsseldorf school of painting. Bingham became involved with the American and German artists of the art colony. He became close to the German-American Emanuel Leutze, the most prominent historical painter in the United States. It wasLeutze who painted Washington Crossing the Delaware, surely one of the bestkniwn American historical paintings. Leutze lived in both Germany and Aneica, dividing his time between the two countries. He had an open studio in Düsseldorf and welcomed Bingham as both a friend and established artist. While in Germany, Bingham worked on commissions from the Missouri State Legislature, as well as private commissions. .

Civil War (1861-65)

Soon after Bingham retuned to America from Germany, he joined the Federl Army. He was anion man. H was no longer a young man, however, and did not have front-line duty. Bingham was appointed State Treasurer of Missouri. Missouri ws a border state. Slavery was legal, but the state did not seceed. Confederate iregulary calavalry commander William Quantrill conducted an attack on the town of Lawrence in Kanss (August 11, 1863). (Bleeding Kansas hd been one of the events that led to the War.) It was one of the notable attrocities of the Civil War. The Quantrill Raiders killed 150 civilian inhabitants and destroyed more than 180 buildings. The Larence Raid is well known. What followed afrwars is less well known. The Federal commander in the district , General Thomas Ewing, was incensed when helearned what had happened. He issued Order No 11 (August 25, 1863), This was esentially an eviction notice to all people in the area (Jackson, Cass, Bates and Vernon counties) who wereunable to prove their loyalty to the UnitedStates. Ewing's decree esentially depopulated the entire region. The population of Cass County, for example, was reduced from 10,000 to 600 people. Larence was close to Kansas City in Missouri and Bingham was appalled when he learned of Order 11. He wrote to General Ewing saying: “If you execute this order, I shall make you infamous with pen and brush". After the War, Bingham did just that, painting a picture depicging Ewing's action (1868). It was his last historical painting. Notorious train robber, Frank James, who had taken part in Quahntril raid commented when he saw the paintinf, This is a picture that talks." It was actions like this that led to a a new legal code which was issued for the Army by President Lincoln.

Subsequent Life (1860s-70s)

Back in America, Bingham increasingly focused on portrature. This is where he made his money. He also remained acyive in politics and was apointed to several posts. He was appointed president of Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners (1874). And he was subsequently appointed the first chief of police in Kansas City. The governor appointed Bingham as Adjutant-General of Missouri (1875). Thereafter he was often referred to as General Bingham. Inhis last years, Bingham was increasingly ill. He was appointed the first Professor of Art at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri--alargely honorific position. He managed to meet with only a few students before his death (1879).

Body of Work

George Caleb Bingham was an American artist active in the mid-19th century. Like most other artists, most of his work was portraits, This is how he primarily earned his living. Unlike most American artists, he akso painted genre works. nd it is thise genre paintings for which he is primarily known today. There are wonderful genre paintings of American life in the early frontier lands along the Missouri River. Some of the best know are life on the River itself. This included 'French Trader, Half-breed Son/Fur Trader Descending the Missouri' (c1845),'Jolly Flatboatmen' (1846), 'Lighter Relieving the Steamboat Aground' (1846-47), 'Raftsmen Playing Cards' (1847), 'Mississippi Boatman' (1850), and 'The Wood Boat' (1850), and finally 'Jolly Flatboatmen in Port' (1857). There were also images away from the River, such as 'Shooting for the Beef' (c1850). Another set of wonderful images are the political paintings. Bingham was deeply involvd in poltics abd his fascination with the political process resulted in some of the most iconic images of American democracy. At the time, the people power tha Ningham depicyed was not to be fond anywhere else in the world. Even in Britain, represebtative democracy was just beginning to take hold. Paintings included: 'The County Election (1852), 'Stump Speaking'(1853-54), and 'The Verdict of the People' (1854-55).

Assessment

Bingham was not in the 19th century given much attention, perhaps because his portrait work was not destinctive, Bingham was was rediscovered in the 1930s and today is one of most important American artists providing us realistic views of mid-19th century America. He did not focus particularly on children, but they are mixed in with the people in his genre scenes, especially boys.








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Created: 1:36 AM 9/20/2012
Last updated: 1:36 AM 9/20/2012