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Defining a Genre: George Caleb Bingham and Genre Painting

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.

Bingham’s Shooting for a Beef depicted a standard western fair of folks meeting at the civic center of the town (they are at the Post Office). A little bit of civilization settling down and making something of themselves. It is also a fine example of the growing roles that dogs played in Bingham’s paintings. He would use them as a quasi Greek Chorus to set the mood or tone of an image without specifically setting it within his human characters. 
The Squatters on the other hand offers nothing to be trusted, admired, or appreciated. They are temporary exploiters of the land (and democracy). Even the dog want’s to know what you want. 
The Squatters. Don’t you get the feeling you are bothering them? 
 Bingham’s election series are as powerful political commentary as any text from the mid 19th century. He follows the backslapper and handshaker from the dark rooms into the honest open, to the public debates, the election and the final announcement. 
Country Politician. Ripe with backroom promises and uninterested parties not to mention the little (little?) American Buddha of politics. 
Canvassing for a Vote. out of doors and on the road, Bingham repeats his earlier composition with a little more well to do voter, road-weary politician, Buddha of Politics, uninterested window-gazer, and one thoroughly bored canine. It does feel more open, if not necessarily more honest. 
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.  
The County Election. Drinks are given for votes, votes are given to drunks (see the man helping his friend in line) swearing in, hat tips, bible oaths, it is all here. Even the literal marginalization of the African American serving the drinks. Something that Bingham will use to greater effect in his last election painting.  

Verdict of the People is almost as busy as his Stump Speaking. See the Jolly Boatman on the right, red neckerchief and all? The central figure is the forlorn African American man situation directly under the flag. Unable to vote, his future is at the mercy of his fellow man. Less obvious are the women on the balcony in the top right waiving their “Remember the Women” banner. They are serving watermelon, and that guy does have on at least three hats. 

 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:

“Pictures are more powerful than Speeches”
–Prosper Wetmore
President of the
American Art Union

PS: For those close enough to make it to Fort Worth the fabulous Amon Carter Museum of American Art is premiering a George Bingham exhibit called Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River on October 2, 2014. The exhibit will run until January 18, 2015 and will then travel on to Saint Louis Art Museum (Feb 22-May 17, 2015) and close out in the MET in New York (June 15-September 20, 2015). There will be examples of Bingham’s copious sketches on hand next to the finished product. Looks like a grand view into the workings of his mind. It is my plan to make it down there next month and hopefully have an update.