George Caleb Bingham (1811 - 1879)
Text and Research by Sidney Larson, Christine Montgomery, Joan Stack, and Carlynn Trout
George Caleb Bingham was a Missouri artist and politician. During
his lifetime, he was known as “the Missouri Artist.” Painting his
most significant pieces between 1845 and 1860, Bingham produced many
remarkable drawings, portraits, landscapes, and scenes of social and
political life on the frontier. He was also active in civic affairs
and contributed to the political life of Missouri before and after
the Civil War.
George Caleb Bingham was born on March 20, 1811, in Augusta
County, Virginia. He was the second of seven children born to Henry Vest
and Mary Amend Bingham. Living on a large farm, George showed a strong
interest in drawing at an early age. He supposedly drew on the sides of
barns, fence posts, and the walls of the family mill. When George was
seven, his father lost most of the family’s property to cover a friend’s
debts. Homeless, George left Virginia with his parents, five siblings,
his grandfather Matthias Amend, and their slaves. They headed to
Missouri to build a new life.
Settling in Missouri
George Bingham’s family settled in Franklin, a village on
the banks of the Missouri River. It was the summer of 1819 and his
parents were quick to contribute to their new community. His father
opened an inn called the Square and Compass. He also started a tobacco
factory, bought farmland, and became a civic leader. Bingham’s mother
was an educated woman and soon started a school for girls, one of the
first west of the Mississippi River.
When George was nine, a painter named Chester Harding came to
Franklin and stayed at their inn. Harding was finishing a portrait of
Daniel Boone. George became Harding’s helper. He stood at Harding’s side
and watched him paint the famous pioneer’s portrait. By observing
closely, George learned the basics of portrait painting.
In late 1823, life changed once again for George. His father died of
malaria, and his mother was left with many unpaid bills. She had to give
up their Franklin home and properties and move her family across the
river to the Bingham farm in Saline County. Here, near the village of
Arrow Rock, she raised her artistic son and his siblings. She continued
to run her school and employed an art teacher, Mattie Wood, who also
gave George art lessons. When George was not studying, he helped his
mother on their farm and at the school.
Becoming an Artist
In 1827 sixteen-year-old George Caleb Bingham left Arrow Rock to
learn a trade in Boonville, Missouri. He worked for a cabinetmaker who
was also a preacher. Bingham liked talking about religious and political
issues and soon gained experience as both a preacher and a lawyer. He
also started painting portraits. In the days before photography, many
people were eager to have likenesses of loved ones. Bingham began
painting his friends’ faces. They admired his work, and soon Bingham
felt confident enough to travel to other towns in Missouri and paint
portraits of citizens who could afford to pay him. By 1833 Bingham was
earning his living as a portrait painter.
In 1834, while painting in Columbia, Bingham met James S. Rollins
an attorney and politician. The two formed a close and long-lasting
friendship. Rollins often gave Bingham advice and financial support.
to Rollins reveal much about their relationship as well as Bingham’s life as a painter and politician.
Before long, Bingham craved more instruction
in art. In 1838 he traveled east to study the canvases of other
artists. Bingham was impressed especially by the genre paintings he saw.
These paintings showed scenes from everyday life. After studying in
Philadelphia and making art contacts in New York City, Bingham returned
to Missouri with more artistic skill and some new ideas about what he
Painting Frontier Life
Growing up along the Missouri River, Bingham had vivid mental
pictures of life on the river. He knew the people and their occupations
firsthand. In 1845 Bingham turned to this subject matter and began an
important and productive period of his artistic career. While he still
traveled extensively, painting portraits to support
Bingham started painting genre scenes that showed life on the frontier. When he shipped four of these paintings
to the American Art-Union in New York, he began a profitable seven-year
association with them. During this period, Bingham produced works that
made him one of America's greatest genre painters.
The Painter as Politician
Throughout his life, Bingham held strong beliefs about
democracy and politics in America. He often used his artistic skills to
portray his political views. As early as 1840, Bingham sketched and
painted artful political banners for his political party, the Whigs.
During his career, he also painted notable political figures such as
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson
, Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and Senator Thomas Hart Benton
Bingham’s paintings that focus on political campaigning and elections
are some of his most important compositions. They show democracy at
work, with all its strengths, weaknesses, and complexities.
Bingham did not just paint his political views. He also ran for
office and served in both elected and appointed positions during his
lifetime. In 1846 Bingham was elected by a narrow margin to the Missouri
legislature, but his opponent successfully contested the outcome and
took the office. Bingham was eventually elected to represent Saline
County in 1848 and represented Missouri's eighth district at the Whig
National Convention in June 1852.
During the Civil War, Bingham sided with the Union. First he served as a
captain in the U.S. Volunteer Reserve Corps. Then he worked as state
treasurer in the provisional government in Jefferson City from 1862 to
1865. One of his most important political paintings, however, came out
of his personal outrage over the actions of a Union general. Martial Law
or Order No. 11 is a politically charged canvas that Bingham spent
years promoting after he completed it in 1868. In 1875 he served in his
last political post as Missouri’s adjutant general.
At the end of his life, Bingham became the first professor of art at the University of Missouri.
Interest in Bingham and his artwork faded after his
on July 7, 1879, in Kansas City. In 1933, however, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York bought
Fur Traders Descending the Missouri
. This purchase sparked interest in Bingham’s work. The St. Louis Art
Museum organized a major exhibition of his work in 1934, and Missouri
Thomas Hart Benton
promoted him. Bingham’s drawings and paintings have since been given
careful attention, and today he is considered one of America’s greatest
and most popular painters.
Meets Show-Me Standards SS: 2, 6, 7; 4th grade GLE 2a.A.
References and Resources
For more information about Geroge Caleb Bingham's life and career, see the following resources:
The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about George Caleb Bingham
in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri
. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets. All links will open in a new tab.
The State Historical Society of Missouri owns one of the largest public collections of Bingham works in the United States.
- Bryant, Keith L. “George Caleb Bingham: The Artist as Whig Politician.” v. 59, no. 4 (July 1965), pp. 448-463.
- “Commemorating George Caleb Bingham: An Exhibit.” v. 73, no. 4 (July 1979), pp. 407-425.
- Hamilton, Jean Tyree. “Mr. Bingham’s Tombstone.” v. 73, no. 4 (July 1979), pp. 426-433.
- Reiger, Nelson A. “Odyssey to an Authentication: A George Caleb Bingham Colorado Landscape.” v. 85, no. 3 (April 1991), pp. 237-263.
- Rollins, C.B., ed. “Letters of George Caleb Bingham to James S. Rollins, Part I.” v. 32, no. 1 (October 1937), pp. 3-34.
_____. “Letters of George Caleb Bingham to James S. Rollins, Part II.” v. 32, no. 2 (January 1938), pp. 164-202.
- _____. “Letters of George Caleb Bingham to James S. Rollins, Part III.” v. 32, no. 3 (April 1938), pp. 340-377.
- _____. “Letters of George Caleb Bingham to James S. Rollins, Part IV.” v. 32, no. 4 (July 1938), pp. 484-522.
- _____. “Letters of George Caleb Bingham to James S. Rollins, Part V.” v. 33, no. 1 (October 1938), pp. 45-78.
- _____. “Letters of George Caleb Bingham to James S. Rollins, Part VI.” v. 33, no. 2 (January 1939), pp. 203-229.
- _____. “Letters of George Caleb Bingham to James S. Rollins, Part VII.” v. 33, no. 3 (April 1939), pp. 349-384.
- _____. “Letters of George Caleb Bingham to James S. Rollins, Part VIII.” v. 33, no. 4 (July 1939), 499-526.
- _____. “Some Recollections of George Caleb Bingham.” v. 20, no. 4 (July 1926), pp. 463-484.
- Simonds, May. “Missouri History as Illustrated by George C. Bingham.” v. 1, no. 3 (April 1907), pp. 181-190.
- “Appreciation of Bingham’s Genius is Exhibit in Museum of Modern Art, New York.” Columbia Tribune. March 18, 1935. p. 4.
- “Bingham as a Lobbyist.” Kansas City Times. May 17, 1876.
- “Death of General George C. Bingham.” Jefferson City Peoples Tribune. July 16, 1879, p. 2, col. 2.
- “George C. Bingham.” Kansas City Times. July 8, 1879. p. 4, col. 3.
- “George C. Bingham, the Artist.” Boonville Weekly Observer. September 30, 1854. p. 1, col. 7-8.
- Bingham, George Caleb. “But I Forget That I am a Painter and Not a Politician”: The Letters of George Caleb Bingham. Columbia: The State Historical Society of Missouri; Arrow Rock, MO: Friends of Arrow Rock, 2011. [F508.1 B513shs]
- Bloch, E. Maurice. The Drawings of George Caleb Bingham, with a catalogue raisonné. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1975. [REF 508.1 B513bL3 oversize]
- _____. George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist. 2 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. [REF F508.1 B513bL]
- _____. The Paintings of George Caleb Bingham: A Catalogue Raisonné. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986. [REF F508.1 B513bL]
- Christensen, Lawrence O., William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 70-74, 655-58. [REF F508 D561]
- Christ-Janer, Albert. George Caleb Bingham: Frontier Painter of Missouri. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1975. [REF F508.1 B513ch2 oversize]
- _____. George Caleb Bingham: The Story of an Artist. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1940. [REF F508.1 B513ch]
- Constant, Alberta Wilson. Paintbox on the Frontier: The Life and Times of George Caleb Bingham. New York: Crowell, 1974. [REF F508.1 B513co]
- McDermott, John Francis. George Caleb Bingham, River Portraitist. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959. [REF F508.1 B513mge]
- Nagel, Paul C. George Caleb Bingham: Missouri’s Famed Painter and Forgotten Politician. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005. [REF F508.1 B513na]
- Rash, Nancy. The Painting and Politics of George Caleb Bingham. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991. [REF F508.1 B513ra]
- Rusk, Fern Helen. George Caleb Bingham: The Missouri Artist. Jefferson City, MO: Hugh Stephens Co., 1917. [REF F508.1 B513ru]
- Shapiro, Michael Edward. George Caleb Bingham. New York:
Harry N. Abrams Publishers, in association with the National Museum of
American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1993. [REF F508.1 B513sh2]
- _____ et al. George Caleb Bingham. New York: St. Louis Art Museum, in association with Harry N. Abrams Publishers, 1990. [REF F508.1 B513sh]
- Bingham Family, Papers, 1814-1930 (C0998)
Correspondence of members of the Bingham family of Virginia and then of
Missouri and Texas. References to friends, deaths, marriages, travel
prices, estates, and personal affairs of the Bingham family.
- Rollins, James S. (1812-1888), Papers, 1546-1968 (C1026)
The papers of James S. Rollins, a Boone County, Missouri, lawyer,
politician, business man, and curator of University of Missouri include
correspondence with family, business and political associates, and
friends, including George Caleb Bingham. Bingham’s letters contain
information about his paintings, political views and aspirations, as
well as things of a more personal nature. As close friends, Rollins and
Bingham named their sons after each other and often wrote about intimate
personal and family problems.
These links, which open in another window, will take you outside the
Society's Web site. The Society is not responsible for the content of
the following Web sites:
- Arrow Rock State Historic Site
This Web site provides a general description of the historic Arrow
Rock and mentions the house George Caleb Bingham built there.
- Bronze Bust of George Caleb Bingham
This Web site shows the bronze bust in Boonville, Missouri, created
by sculptor Sabra Tull Meyer depicting the great Missouri artist.
Art Museums in Missouri with Bingham holdings
- The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Canvassing for a Vote, 1852
This page on the museum’s Web site offers an analysis of a specific Bingham painting.
- Saint Louis Art Museum
George Caleb Bingham: The Making of “The County Election”
This interactive online exhibition shows viewers how Bingham composed his great political painting, The County Election.