- Portraits and Politics, the Life of George Caleb Bingham [Biography]
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George Caleb Bingham

During the early part of the nineteenth century, as art in this country became more than crude portraits painted by self-taught, travelling salesmen, often more comfortable painting signs than faces; there developed also a need for some kind of organised effort to provide at least rudimentary art training for those so inclined, and perhaps some kind of support group to promote their work. In the 1830s, in New York, the National Academy of Design evolved as did an association of artists called the American Art-Union. The academy was not really a college. It was hardly more than an art club. It had little money and even less prestige. What it did have was talented men and even a few women, with energy, dedication, ingenuity, and vision.

One of these men was George Caleb Bingham. Born in 1811, he came to New York in 1838 where he exhibited his work with the National Academy. He had been the first major painter to live and work west of the Mississippi. Like his idol, Thomas Cole, he had started as an itinerant portrait painter. He also loved to sketch scenes of the normal life near the flowing highways that were the only safe and convenient thoroughfares in the West at the time. Gradually, he gave up portrait painting, which was just as well, in that he was at best only mediocre; in favour of landscapes and especially genre scenes encompassing the frontier life he loved. Eventually, he got involved in local politics and drew from this rough and tumble life for the content of his paintings.

In 1845 he painted his most famous work, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. The painting glows with the warm, misty, golden colours of dawn as two bored trappers stare out at the viewer as they glide down the tranquil, rain-swollen river in a dugout canoe. Chained in the bow of the craft is what appears to be a large black cat, but in reality is actually a pet bear cub. Bingham sold the painting to the Art-Union for $25. The group used prints made from it to raise operating funds, then raffled off the painting. Their efforts served not only to raise money for their association, but also to bring inexpensive American art to the public in the form of prints. In addition, It allowed those of modest means and a little luck to own original oil paintings.

contributed by Lane, Jim

31 May 1998

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