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200th Birthday of George Caleb Bingham, American Artist of the American System

by Steve Carr

June 2011

Art critics often complain that the personal letters and other writings of George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) mostly reveal his political identity, and give little insight into his artistic style. Bingham even admitted to a friend that he was so involved in politics that he worried that he was neglecting his career as a painter. However, what these art critics seem to be missing is that his politics WAS his artistic style.

With the 1803 Louisiana Purchase the nation doubled in size, yet the population remained concentrated on the eastern seaboard. The nationalists wanted to focus attention to the great untapped potential of the continent. It was not sufficient to explore the wilderness, there was a patriotic duty to civilize it with permanent settlement. In Europe a landscape painting might be seen as a way to escape the increasingly urbanized rigors of life, but in America it would define a national mission of development. The nationalists could not tolerate a vast primordial “terra incognita” on our continent, and man's taming of the wilderness commanded center stage on nearly all of Bingham's canvases. Bingham's point was not to record this progress, but to accelerate the agenda of progress.

Bingham gave his predominately eastern audience the comforting reassurance of an optimistic and enticing West. The West was the “land of plenty,” which in the late 1840's must have created quite a contrast, as every city in the East received one of the largest migrations in world history as millions of starving Irish refugees escaped from the British orchestrated Potato Famine. (Please don't blame the potato since this was not an act of nature. Ireland continued to produce literally “boatloads” of grain and other foodstuffs, but their British masters required that these other crops be exported to pay their debt, and especially to finance the lavish lifestyles of their “absentee landlords”).

The men in Bingham's paintings are always industrious, strong, imbued with self-confidence, and their independence does not diminish their social nature. Even resting after hard labor is a noble activity, usually involving thinking or discussing ideas with others. They are the advance guard of an expanding civilization. These are not the trigger-happy, “rugged individualists” and social misfits living beyond the reach of society, so often glorified in Hollywood “Western” movies. There are no nomadic cowboys sleeping under the stars, but rather a very domesticated people living and working harmoniously together. If anything, the West had less social stratification than the East. In the small towns and outposts of the West, people were judged less by one's social standing, wealth, age, or privilege—and Bingham captured the entire human spectrum. This was life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—Western style.

Bingham depicted fewer women, but their image served an even greater purpose. Muscle-power of Bingham's frontier men may have allowed civilization to take a foothold in the new territories, but it was continuously the presence of women that created that civilizing effect.

It is ironic, however, that while Bingham is always portrayed as the quintessential “regional painter,” what he depicted were really national ideals. The only difference was that sometimes these national ideals were seen through the eyes of a small town inhabitant from the West.

Bingham and the Whig Party

Bingham was a passionate leader of the Whig Party, being elected several times as a delegate to state and national party conventions, elected twice as a Missouri State Representative (although the first time, he won the most votes and took his seat in office, but soon the Democratic Party controlled legislature voted to replace him with his Democratic rival, using an obscure rule where the legislature could intervene in “close” races). He was also appointed to several political positions, especially during the Civil War era, since his loyalty was never in doubt. Bingham ardently supported a national bank, high tariffs, and internal improvements.

Whig Party leaders from across the state continuously called on Bingham to develop images that could be used to help swing elections or to promote a political policy. One nationalist wrote, “Give me control of the art of a country, and you may have the management of its administrations.” In 1836 Bingham supported Henry Clay for President and did a series of banners to show Clay's lifetime achievements. Bingham wrote that he designed the final banner to show, “Henry Clay, the statesman, with his 'American System' operating in the distance.” While the entire series of banners were lost in a fire, his concept of using art as a political and social weapon stayed with him for the rest of his long career. His genre paintings were never just vignettes of everyday life, but always developed profoundly deeper issues.

His life long best friend was fellow Whig Party leader, James S. Rollins (1812-1888) from Columbia, Missouri. Rollins was a Major in the Black Hawk War, and served several terms as State Representative, State Senator, and Congressman. He was a strong Unionist, opposed slavery, and was a leading voice in support of the 13th Amendment. Rollins introduced legislation to build railroads, telegraph lines, improve water transportation, build two land grant agricultural colleges, one mechanical college, and today is perhaps best known as the “Father of the University of Missouri” (which is located in his hometown). For decades Bingham and Rollins were inseparable. They each named a son in honor of the other, and when Bingham died, Rollins gave the eulogy.

Many westerners of the Whig tradition, including Abraham Lincoln, were opposed to slavery on moral grounds, but increasingly saw slavery as a very powerful weapon for those who were more interested in splitting the nation. Lincoln, like Bingham, was completely opposed to the 1846 invasion of Mexico on the grounds that it had nothing to do with defending US territory, but rather was a land grab (in a southern direction) which would completely upset the delicate balancing act of admitting states to the union. In their eyes, the ultimate target of this war was not Mexico, but rather a unified United States.

Bingham and the Civil War

Bingham saw the approaching Civil War and dedicated his work to maintain the union. He painted full length portraits of George Washington, Henry Clay, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams (Bingham knew Adams well since his art studio and J. Q. Adam's congressional office once shared the same office space in the basement of the U.S. Capitol building), Alexander von Humboldt, and even a portrait of Andrew Jackson as symbols of a strong unified nation. He especially enjoyed using the painting of Andrew Jackson, who everyone knew had been his bitter political foe for years, but even Jackson stood firm on the issue of national unity during the 1832 Nullification Crisis, when South Carolina tried to nullify the protective tariffs implemented under John Quincy Adams in 1828. Bingham literally carried this life size painting of Andrew Jackson around with him in the street, to challenge any Confederate sympathizers, saying that Jackson was their hero and not his, but even Jackson supported national unity.

During the tumultuous war years Bingham found it more difficult to paint as he became State Treasurer (and held other political positions), but he was able to complete portraits of some of the Missouri heroes for the Union. General Nathaniel Lyon (1818-1861) gave his life to the cause, but was considered by many to have single-handedly kept Missouri in the Union, and Bingham did two portraits of him (the second commissioned by the state legislature to be hung in the state capitol building). At the outset of the Civil War General Lyon had virtually no men under him, so when 700 confederate soldiers gathered just west of St. Louis, Lyon personally dressed-up as a farm woman, entered the Confederate camp to gather intelligence, and then returned with civilians in the middle of the night, surrounded the camp, and arrested all 700 Confederates without firing a shot. General Lyon's civilians were mostly from Congressman Francis Blair's St. Louis chapter of the “Wide Awakes” which did political parades for Abraham Lincoln, sponsored debates, even served as bodyguards for Republican Party candidates, and was comprised largely of the huge and fiercely loyal German immigrant community in St. Louis. General Lyon was an ardent Abolitionist who aggressively took the battle to the enemy, and was promoted to head the Army's Department of the West. Lyon was the first Union general to die in battle driving Governor Clairborne Jackson (1806-1862) into exile. (Clairborne Jackson was trying to force the state to join the Confederacy, even though he had recently been elected on the promise of keeping the state in the Union). Thanks to the determination of General Lyon, the “Governor in exile” never returned to the state, and Missouri was secured for the Union.

Bingham also did two portraits of St. Louis Congressman Francis Blair (1821-1875). In the 1850's Blair had been active in the Free Soil Party which opposed the expansion of slavery, but by 1860 was elected to Congress as a Lincoln Republican. Blair recruited thousands of soldiers for the Unionist Missouri Home Guard and by July 1862 left his seat in Congress to lead his volunteers into battle. He and his volunteers served in battle at Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Sherman's “March to the Sea.” Both Grant and Sherman were impressed with his leadership and military drive, and both agreed that Blair was their best non-West Point graduate general. President Lincoln, however, needed his political savvy and asked Blair to return to the increasingly troublesome Congress where he was a trusted spokesman for the Lincoln administration.

Bingham on Justice

After the war Bingham turned more of his focus on the issue of liberty and justice. He saw much suffering during the war, but most offensive to him were war crimes committed “in the name of the Union.” He did a painting of martial law “Order 11” (1865) in which Union troops evicted every family from several counties in western Missouri. The desolate landscape was then burned and looted—not by “border ruffians” in the dark of night, but rather uniformed soldiers in broad daylight. The only thing left were chimneys for miles around causing this area to be called the “Burnt District” for years to come. Bingham showed the “scorched-earth” order causing the most suffering to innocent women and children, leaving the guerrillas virtually unscathed. During Bingham's career he often celebrated families choosing to move westward, but here broken families are forced, against their will, to move eastward (to be relocated to central Missouri). He said that, “I will make this order infamous in history.” He even wrote a pamphlet to explain this painting. Bingham reminded the reader that he had served in the Union Army, every male in his family served in the Union Army, he held office in the provisional state government, opposed slavery, and advocated gradual emancipation. This painting was not an attack against the Union Army, nor a defense of slavery, but rather a defense of the principles of the Constitution, and anyone violating those principles was his political enemy. He argued that the people being evicted were friends of the Union, sending their sons to fight in the Union army, and electing pro-Union candidates to represent them. These citizens were entitled to the full protection of the law, and anyone denying that protection was a Judas to the true ideals of the nation.

Bingham painted “Major Dean in Jail” (1866). Dean was a Baptist minister and one of the first in the state to volunteer to serve in the Union Army, eventually rising to the rank of Major. He never lifted his hand nor his voice against the country, yet after the war he was put in prison (in Bingham's hometown) for refusing to swear the Oath of Allegiance for religious reasons. For Bingham, America's historic role was to make people free, but to take away freedom in the name of America was a shocking outrage.

In 1874 Bingham painted “The Puzzled Witness” where a slick lawyer's interrogation tactics were so harsh and intimidating that he left the less sophisticated witness confused about the true events of the crime. The stunned witness is left bewildered, scratching his head, and doubting the veracity of his own testimony. Bingham loved to explore the interaction of people from completely different walks of life, but his concern here is that we can never allow truth to be steamrolled by sophistry. He was always interested it the workings of a democratic government, but this was also the year that he became the president of the Kansas City Police Board of Commissioners and he began to more closely examine the legal system. Bingham's art would demand progress in every dimension.

Emigration of Daniel Boone (1852)

One of the goals of the Whig Party was to encourage permanent, stable settlement in the West, and key to this was to have entire families emigrate as a unit. Here hardships are endured not for personal gain, but rather for national purpose. This was in great contrast to the recent “settlement” during the 1849 gold rush where manic miners would stake a claim based on a rumor of gold in one place, and then just as quickly, leave it because of a new rumor of even greater riches just over the next mountain. More dangerous still, especially in Missouri, was the “settlement” taking place with the “compromise” promoted by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas (1813-1861) and his “Popular Sovereignty,” where the violent fanatics on both sides of the slavery issue settled along the Missouri-Kansas border in order to “bushwhack” their respective opponents. His Popular Sovereignty killed 27,000 people in this small area. Bingham wanted the nation to again focus on settlement with real development.

Daniel Boone (1734-1820) blazed the first trails over the Cumberland Gap and was considered a symbol of Manifest Destiny, the idea that Americans had a duty to bring development to the hinterlands. Bingham here depicts an actual event in near Biblical terms. This is often described as a frontier style Holy Family being led to the Promised Land. Boone is seen as a virtual Moses leading his flock, and Rebecca, his wife seated on the horse, appears like a Madonna covered with her shawl. They are seen emerging from a dark, threatening mountain pass heading towards the light. Their body language is the forward thrust of civilization, with facial expressions of determination, and an unstoppable flood of settlers that follow. Bingham is also careful to illustrate the correct order of the procession, with riflemen first, men with axes second, and at the end of the procession, men driving cattle. This is the order of settlement with hunters first (riflemen), then settlers with axes, and livestock to supply the farms. For Bingham, progress, history, and Christian purpose meet in the American West.

We should also note that, like many figures in his other paintings, Boone here is modeled after an ancient Greek statue. Bingham studied art in Dusseldorf, Philadelphia, and New York City and during his travels he built-up quite a collection of plaster copies of Renaissance and ancient Greek statues to use in his studio. Bingham tries to capture the “mid-motion” qualities of the greatest artistic (and scientific) revolution of the ancient sculptors. Never before could stone look so life like. Boone is created after the famous statue of a spear bearer, Doryphoros by Polykleitos (fifth & fourth century BCE—those that followed Polykleitos made even greater improvements, but Polykleitos did some of the groundbreaking experiments with proportion and movement). The only difference is that Boone is holding a rifle where the spear would be. Bingham used these models from classical antiquity to also remind us that these American pioneers represent the continuity of human advancement from previous civilizations.

Boatmen on the Missouri (1846)

Although Bingham spent most of his life living next to some of the biggest rivers in the world, he never realized their importance until he studied art in Philadelphia in 1838. Whenever he depicted people near water, he usually had them deep in contemplation. His water always invites reflection, both visual and mental. Water could eliminate distractions in a painting, or he could use rivers to recall childhood memories. Water's buoyancy could be used to do the heavy-lifting in his nation building, and the network of river systems were vital in reuniting a divided nation. His river men never fight back flood waters or battle powerful currents, but rather discover scientific principles to harness the forces of nature.

Before Bingham started a painting he always had a geometric plan for the composition and this painting is exemplary. He often used classical shapes and found them to help define depth and scale. Here a pyramid of boatmen are carefully arranged on a very stable base created by the prow of the ship and the out-stretched oars, which are parallel to the picture plane. The boat which serves as a stage for its actors, is so scientifically balanced that it is hard to believe that there are torrents of water moving beneath them. He usually established the viewpoint just above the waterline where the viewer is intimately part of the action. Bingham also preferred not to show a river from shore to shore but rather a view up or down the river where the viewer's eye is naturally invited to follow the path of the river and look deep inside the painting. Boats were long used as a metaphor for commerce and technology, and the Whig Party often used the progress of ship design to ultimately show the perfectibility of the human mind. One Whig Party newspaper even used Biblical terms to describe how Noah, renown for his shipbuilding skills, saved the world, and was acting as an instrument of God. The year this painting was completed (1846) the Whig Party was able to pass a bill through the House and Senate to improve rivers and harbors, but it was later vetoed by President Polk. After the Polk veto, Bingham did two paintings of the dangers of river travel where steamships are damaged by snags and sandbars. In these paintings the damaged ships also represent the “ship of state” in Polk's troubled waters.

River folklore created stories about the “half horse, half alligator,” Mike Fink who was hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, and challenged with many personal hygiene issues. However, Bingham develops boatmen who might be tough, but are restrained and engaging. The Whig Party often promoted honest work as a virtue and here, near the center of the painting, Bingham placed the stacks of wood for sale as fuel to the approaching steamboat in the distance. Steamboats may have been a symbol of progress, but Bingham points out that his river men make it all possible. They consistently deliver a confident message to their eastern viewers that civilization is making progress in the West and they are invited to participate.

Country Politician (1849)

Bingham arrived as a child in Missouri before it became a state. There were no Boards of Election or even City Halls. There were no rules or even social customs for holding elections. As a child, Bingham saw democracy being invented. He remembered many sober political discussions held in the inn run by his father. Bingham believed that vital to this democratic ideal was the need for leaders to speak their mind freely, but ultimately they could only rule by the consent of the governed. Here the audience seems skeptical of the validity of his arguments, but the hand gestures of the politician suggest at least a well developed viewpoint.

Many at the time thought that this painting was a political attack against the pro-slavery Claiborne Fox Jackson (1806-1862), a state senator at the time. Although he was in the state legislature, he was attempting a political maneuver to force the entire Missouri congressional delegation to break the Wilmont Proviso (regarding slavery in land purchased from Mexico in 1846). One can see that the person in the back is reading a poster on the wall announcing that a circus was coming to town, which many thought was a reference to Claiborne Jackson's traveling road show.

Country Election (1852)

This painting calls to mind Ben Franklin's famous quote, “We have given you a republic, if you can keep it.” Bingham often used humor in his works, but this was his most biting. The viewer's eye may get lost in this raucous crowd, but Bingham places a shadow of Paul Revere on horseback in the distance as a reminder of the country's dependence on individuals to act in important historic periods. American politics was not a precise science, especially on the frontier, but at least on election day every voice would be equal. However, when truth seeking was not the motivation of the majority, then that equality could actually pose a danger. Earlier when Bingham was a candidate, his opponent, E. A. Sappington was known for trying to buy votes by providing an ample supply of liquor on election day, and here we can see this election cycle has also been lubricated quite well. Bingham firmly believed that the ballot box was the only way to run a government, but there is a certain unresolved nature to this painting, where a successful outcome is not guaranteed. He was a keen observer (and participant) of the election process and here includes himself, seated on the steps with a top hat. He shows himself as an equal member of this society, and equally responsible for its fate. However, even when he was his harshest with his fellow citizens, he always had affection. His humor is not condescending, but rather a call to one's better nature. Prince Phillip might attack Bingham as a “human-supremacist,” but we humans would be wise to take to heart his message. That would be the greatest birthday present that we could offer to the “Missouri artist.”