Wednesday, March 20, 2013

George Caleb Bingham (1811 - 1879)

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.


Early Years

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. Bingham’s letters 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 could paint.


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 his family, 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.


Bingham's Legacy

Interest in Bingham and his artwork faded after his death, 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 artist 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:

Society 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.

  • Artwork by George Caleb Bingham
    The State Historical Society of Missouri owns one of the largest public collections of Bingham works in the United States.
  • Articles from the Missouri Historical Review
  • Articles from the Newspaper Collection
    • “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.
  • Books and Articles
    • 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]
  • Manuscript Collection
    • 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.

Outside Resources

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.