When the American Art Union set out to up the standards of American artwork it sought specifically scenes of everyday life in addition to the great high-minded historical painting. One artist capitalized on this trend of “everyday life” paintings in ways few others had or have.
|George Caleb Bingham|
Born in Virginia Bingham was entirely self taught through copy books and studying prints of old masters. In a way he perfected his triangular composition to an extent that you can usually see the triangles before the painting.
|Fur Traders Descending the Missouri.
Nature, Half-breed, European.
The wild animal is one of the big contentions in American Western Art.
It is obviously a cat, a fox, a bearcub, right? Obviously.
He began his work more or less with a series of flatboatman paintings. Bu the time he was painting these scenes of jolly flatboatman, or raftsmen playing cards, steamboats had all but replaced the flatbottom boat as the means of transport of goods and people along the river. Industrious boatmen still made a living as lighters–boats that would take on the stores of a steamboat that had run aground on a sandbar in order to make it lighter to refloat, or wood boats–periodical filling stations for the boiler fuel that paddled the steamships.
Bingham’s images may seem simple, but they bely a keen observation to politics, a topic which Bingham held more than a passing interest. He ran as a whig and was defeated on decision, he was forever suspicious os squatter’s right to vote (temporary votes at best and temporary democratic votes at worst), as well as democrats reluctance to provide funding for improvements such as roads and removing snags and clearing sandbars along the river to aid in expedient and issue-less trade transportation. This background makes Bingham’s Lighter painting more politically charged than it seems at first glance.
|The Jolly Boatman. Merriment dancing, giant triangular composition.|
|Jolly Flatboatman in Port. Steamships looming in the background.
Bingham also reused characters–Quite a bit actually.
|Raftsmen Playing Cards. Whittling, drinking waiting.|
|The Woodboat. Steamship in the distance. Refueling stations.|
|Another Woodboat family. The sun is setting on the image and their way of life|
|Lighter Relieving the Steamboat Aground. Bingham’s commentary of Jackson and the dirty penny pinching democrats.|
|Watching the Cargo. Another steamship in peril. Once the ship was lightened and refloated it could be reloaded, until then, someone had to protect the cargo.|
Bingham also portrayed simple western life as well as laconic riverlife that followed cultural heroes like Mark Fink and the literary waterworld of Mark Twain.
|Shooting for a Beef. Like a turkey shoot, but a much larger price.|
|The Squatters. Don’t you get the feeling you are bothering them?|
|Country Politician. Ripe with backroom promises and uninterested parties not to mention the little (little?) American Buddha of politics.|
|Stump Speaking. The town is all out, but not all interested. Some AAU critics claimed this was “too busy.” In the end though the Art Union paid $350 for this painting which was the highest ever paid for a Bingham.|
Bingham’s depictions of the simple life were anything but. They are full of symbolism, allegory, and outright political commentary. Something to remember as you peruse art museum and look at the various collections. Remember what was going on at the time these were created, who was creating them (Bingham’s Whig disposition influences a lot), and try to situate them historically. You will get more out of them than simple aesthetics these series and this artist are some of the strongest examples of what the AAU was trying to accomplish and sum up AAU President Prosper Wetmore’s quote which I will end with: