Genre Painting and George Caleb Bingham
Genre Painting and George Caleb Bingham
Origins. Genre painting emerged in the 1820s and 1830s as American artists searched for uniquely American subject matter. Turning from formal portraits and history painting, genre painters such as John Quidor, William Sidney Mount, and George Caleb Bingham painted scenes from everyday life and popular American literature. Genre painting, in its embrace of the everyday, lent symbolic importance to the common experiences of ordinary American citizens. In the late 1820s Quidor began painting subjects from the works of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, producing such works as The Return of Rip Van Winkle (1829) and The Money Diggers (1832). Mount documented rural life on the farms of his native Long Island, New York. In paintings such as Farmers Nooning (1836), Cider Making (1840–1841), and Eel Spearing at Setauket (1845), Mount created an optimistic mood of harmony, serenity, and abundance.
Bingham’s Early Career. George Caleb Bingham, born in Virginia in 1811, spent most of his childhood in Missouri. At the age of nine, Bingham met and observed Chester Harding as he was completing a portrait of Daniel Boone. Bingham began to assist Harding in his studio and was so impressed by Harding’s work that he decided to become a painter himself. In fact, art historians believe that Bingham’s first work, possibly completed in the 1820s, was a signboard for a hotel featuring the image of Boone. Aided by his study of composition books, but without formal training, Bingham began a career as a portraitist. He enjoyed some measure of success; the Columbia Missouri Intelligencer boasted proudly that Bingham was a “Western ‘meteor of the arts’” whose work heralded the development of Western culture and refinement. Despite this acclaim, Bingham felt the need for further study and training. In 1835 he went to St. Louis, and in 1838 he traveled to Philadelphia, where he visited the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Visiting New York’s National Academy of Design, he may have seen Mount’s work on exhibition.
Life on the River. After returning to Missouri in the fall of 1838, Bingham turned to regional subjects, attempting to create works that were authentic records of life in Missouri and at the same time appealed to Eastern curiosity about the West. His most famous paintings of this period are river scenes, depicting the lives of trappers and raftsmen along the Missouri. In contrast to the boastful, crude, and often violent depiction of rivermen in tall tales, Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845), Boatmen on the Missouri (1846), The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846), and Raftsmen Playing Cards (1847) are golden scenes of harmony and rural virtue. Bingham’s boatmen are not, like tall-tale hero Mike Fink, “halfhorse, half-alligator.” They are, as one critic has put it, “hearty men in tune with themselves and their place in creating the nation’s future.” In his first history painting, The Emigration of Daniel Boone (1851), Bingham mythologized the frontier experience more explicitly. The painting borrows from classical and religious sources; Bingham’s Boone is a statuesque pioneer, leading his family from a dark, foreboding landscape into the promised land.
Bingham and Democracy. Bingham was not only an artist; he was also active in the Whig party during the 1840s and 1850s, a period of intense debate over the expansion of slavery in the West. Bingham had a fervent belief in democracy, but his own experience as an elected official tempered this faith. In 1846 he ran as a Whig candidate for the Missouri state legislature. After initially being declared the winner by a margin of three votes, Bingham lost in a recount. He wrote to a friend, “as soon as I get through with this affair, and its consequences, I intend to strip off my clothes and bury them, scour my body all over with sand and water, put on a clean suit, and keep out of the mire of politics forever.’ Bingham’s election scenes reflect both his idealism and his skepticism; paintings such as The Stump Orator (1847), Country Politician (1849), and Canvassing for a Vote (1851–1852) document a Western electoral process that is at once rambunctious and serious, flawed and heroic. In The Country Election (1851–1852), a panoramic view of the electoral process, a range of activities and figures appear: a drunken voter, two men engaged in a serious debate, children playing games, and a knife-throwing contest. Above all of these figures, a banner proclaims “The Will of the People The Supreme Law,” ultimately affirming Bingham’s faith in the popular voice. The Country Election became part of a trilogy of paintings including Stump Speaking (1853–1854) and The Verdict of the People (1854–1855). Painted as the Union was heading toward crisis, the Election Series trilogy affirms Bingham’s hope for a democratic resolution to sectional differences. Some art historians also see evidence of Bingham’s antislavery views in these works, as well as his support for the temperance movement.
Rediscovery. After his death in 1879, Bingham’s work as a painter was largely forgotten; he was “rediscovered” when Regionalist painters of the 1930s, such as Thomas Hart Benton, claimed Bingham as an influence. The recognition of Bingham’s national importance grew with exhibitions devoted to his work, first in 1934 at the St. Louis Art Musuem, and then in 1935 at the Musuem of Modern Art in New York.
Nancy Rash, The Paintings and Politics of George Caleb Bingham (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991);
Michael Edward Shapiro, George Caleb Bingham (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993);
John Wilmerding, American Art (New York: Penguin, 1976).