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.
Settling in Missouri
Becoming an Artist
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
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.
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 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 ResourcesThe 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.
Articles from the Missouri Historical Review
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- Bingham Family, Papers, 1814-1930 (C0998)
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.
- The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art