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George Caleb Bingham: The Missouri Artist of American Frontier

By George Caleb Bingham - Saint Louis Art Museum official site, Public Domain, Link

Depicting the masculine world of river boatmen and rural politics and producing many remarkable drawings, portraits, landscapes and scenes of social and political life on the Western frontier, the American artist, George Caleb Bingham, is celebrated as one of the classic artists of the early American West.

Best-known as “the Missouri Artist”, Bingham was born on March 20, 1811, in Augusta County, Virginia. He was the second of the seven children born to Henry Vest Bingham and Mary Amend Bingham. Living on a large farm, he showed a strong interest in drawing at an early age. In 1819, Bingham family moved to Franklin, Missouri, on the Lewis and Clark trail. After the death of his father, the family relocated to Arrow Rock, Missouri.

Between 1827 and 1828, Bingham apprenticed to a cabinetmaker in Booneville, Missouri, during which time his interest in a career as a painter developed. By 1833, he had established himself as an accomplished itinerant portrait painter. Except for three months of study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Bingham was self-taught.

During a brief stay in Philadelphia Bingham studied paintings by Benjamin West, Thomas Lawrence, and Thomas Sully and drew from antique casts. With a renewed interest in his artistic career, he returned to Missouri in 1838. He continued to paint and his most mature work date from this period. In works such as “The County Election” (1852) and “The Verdict of the People” (1854-55), Bingham gives a vivid account of the rough and lively political life of the frontier. These works display his facility for incisive characterization as well as his talent for organizing large, dense compositions.

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 color and light. For instance, the landscape setting of his “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri” is as good as the landscape picture “American Lake Scene” by Thomas Cole. In due course, the unique quality of his landscape art was recognized and given the name “Luminism”, which characterized as “a polished and meticulous realism, concerned chiefly with water and sky” which uses sensitive gradations of tone, texture, and color to capture the light and its reflection.

In 1856, Bingham visited Germany to study the masters of the Dusseldorf school, a group of painters whose work is characterized by sentimentality and careful attention to detail. Influenced by the paintings he saw there, he altered his style and lost the directness he had achieved in earlier works. Late in life, Bingham became active in politics, serving as a Missouri state treasurer in 1862, and in 1875 he was appointed adjutant general of Missouri. During the last two years of his life, he taught at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

At 68, George Caleb Bingham died on July 7, 1879, in Kansan City, Missouri.


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