George Caleb Bingham (1811-79)
The 19th century American realist painter George Caleb Bingham is especially admired for his genre painting of frontier life on and around the Missouri river, whose quality was highest during the decade 1845-55. After a study trip to Europe in 1856-8, his style of American realism, which up to then had been characterized by a hypnotic, dreamlike stillness - as exemplified by his masterpiece Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) - became more contrived and sentimental, losing some of its appeal in the process. As well as genre-scenes, Bingham is also noted for his landscape painting and portrait art. But overall his oil paintings (other than his portraiture) are comparatively rare. Nearly all are held by American art museums, and hardly ever appear at auction. Bingham is now considered to be one of the most important North American Frontier Painters of the pre-photography era - along with Thomas Cole (1801-48), Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) of the Hudson River school of American wilderness landscape painting. He was a chronicler of a bygone way of life and an artist of great skill and sensitivity. (See also: American Art:1750-present).
For biographies of the best
American realist artists from
the 18th and 19th centuries, see:
Benjamin West (1738-1820)
History painter, portrait artist.
John Singleton Copley (1738-1815)
Portraitist and history painter.
Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828)
Portraitist of George Washington.
Thomas Cole (1801-48)
Founder of Hudson River school.
Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900)
Greatest American landscape artist.
Winslow Homer (1836-1910)
Seascapes, Civil War painting.
Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)
Famous for The Gross Clinic.
Frederic Remington (1861-1909)
American Wild West painter.
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WHAT IS ART?
George Caleb Bingham was born on a farm in Virginia. At the age of 8, he moved with his family to Missouri Territory where he grew up among the communities of Franklin, Arrow Rock, and Boonville. Although inspired both by the landscape, its history and inhabitants, as well as a short spell with the highly talented American portrait painter Chester Harding, who was in the final stages of a portrait of the famous frontiersman Daniel Boone, Bingham's first artistic activities as a teenager was limited to learning the trade of joinery, cabinet-making and sign-painting.
Prompted by a second encounter with Harding, Bingham started painting portraits and discovered he had a natural gift. His early compositions, painted in his 20s, outclassed anything produced by other frontier artists of the period. Eventually he would complete some 500 portraits, and his gallery amounted to a Who's Who of celebrated 19th century Missourians. It was also an essential regular source of income.
In 1838, he studied fine art for a short period at the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts, and then worked in Washington as a portraitist before returning to Missouri, where he found his ultimate metier - genre paintings depicting and immortalizing fur traders, riverboatmen and frontier settlers against the background of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Gradually, he moved his focus away from the river onto land around St. Louis, Columbia, Jefferson City, and Kansas City, to depict scenes of political campaigning (he was elected to the Missouri Legislature in 1848), the American Civil War, and other day to day activities of the people of Missouri in and around St. Louis, Columbia, Jefferson City, and Kansas City. Probably his best-known genre painting is Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), a striking geometric composition of two trappers and their cat gliding across the still river.
Luminism: Landscape Art
Although most of these works are properly described as genre-paintings, due to their human content, their background settings are stand-alone works of art, painted with a unique sensitivity to colour and light. For instance the landscape setting of Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri is very similar to, and as good as the landscape picture American Lake Scene (1844, Detroit Institute of Arts) by Thomas Cole (1801-48), leader of the Hudson River School of landscape painting. In due course, the unique quality of Bingham's landscape art was recognized and given the name "Luminism" by John Baur, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. He characterized it as "a polished and meticulous realism, concerned chiefly with water and sky" which uses sensitive gradations of tone, texture and colour to capture the light and its reflection.
Help From The American Art-Union
Bingham's fame as a painter spread throughout the cities of the East largely because of the support of the powerful New York-based American Art-Union (AAU, active 1839-51). Beginning in 1845 with their purchase of Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, as well as The Concealed Enemy and two landscapes Cottage Scenery and Landscape, Rural Scenery, the AAU bought twenty of Bingham's paintings, some of which were engraved and distributed to the AAU's membership of 20,000 art lovers.
In 1856, Bingham travelled to Europe with his family; first to Paris (which he found pricey and unwelcoming), then Dusseldorf (a major art centre in Germany which attracted several American painters), where thanks to assistance he received from the German-American artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze [1816-68], he painted portraits of US Presidents Washington and Jefferson along with some landscapes and other works.
In 1859, Bingham reluctantly returned to America and became more and more occupied with Missouri politics and portraiture, criss-crossing the state in search of portrait commissions. In 1877, amid failing health, he became the first Professor of Art at the University of Missouri. He died two years later in Kansas City at the age of 68.
Today Bingham's childhood home in Arrow Rock, Missouri, is a National Historic Landmark, while his paintings can be seen in the best art museums across America.
Genre Paintings by George Caleb Bingham
Here is a selected list of frontier genre scenes by Bingham.
- Family Life on the Frontier (prior
to 1845, Anschutz Collection, Denver)
Portrait Paintings by George Caleb Bingham
Here is a selected list of portraits by Bingham.
- Dr. John Sappington (1834, Arrow
Rock State Historic Site)