George Caleb Bingham - Biography

George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) is recognized today as one of the most important 19th century American artists. He is distinguished among the first generation of painters of the early American West for his classic narrative scenes drawn from his actual observation and experience.

His most famous paintings chronicle America’s westward expansion and depict life along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and the American frontier. His Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) is a renowned example of his genre paintings, containing here not only a colorful cast of characters, but layers of implied complexity in its symbolism and socio-political commentary. His paintings portraying fur trappers and traders, riverboatmen, fishermen, politicians and frontier settlers are considered national treasures and today are held in important private and museum collections; notably: National Gallery of Art, National Portrait Gallery, Wadsworth Atheneum, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Saint Louis Art Museum, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, The White House, and many others.

Bingham did not sign many of his paintings; in fact, it is estimated that he signed fewer than five percent of his work. His unsigned paintings and his lack of record-keeping has allowed many unsigned works to slip into obscurity. Such was the case with Horse Thief and fourteen other paintings that have been identified and authenticated since 1986. In 1986, E. Maurice Bloch published The Paintings of George Caleb Bingham: A Catalogue Raisonné, in conjunction with University of Missouri Press. In that rigorous catalogue Bloch documented all of Bingham’s known paintings at the time of publication. Then, in 2005, The George Caleb Bingham Catalogue Raisonné Supplement of Paintings & Drawings was established as a work-in-progress in order to update Bloch’s publication and continue the high standard of scholarship on Bingham’s life and work that Bloch had set forth. A Bingham Committee—to administer and validate new discoveries—was organized by a group of noted art historians under Bingham specialist Fred R. Kline as Director and Editor, with a distinguished Advisory Board consisting of Bingham biographer and American historian Paul C. Nagel, Ph.D. (1926-2011), Art History Professor William Kloss, M.A. who, among many honors and achievements, served for ten years on the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, and noted author, lecturer, and Professor of Art History, Elizabeth Fellows Andrus-Rivera, Ph.D. (Numerous other scholars have participated in the process in the past ten years.)

Bingham was the first major American artist to come out of the early Western states and the first to have been born in a Western state. He was, from the beginning of his career, referred to as “the Missouri artist”. Born in Augusta County, Virginia, he moved to Missouri at age eight with his parents, Henry and Mary Bingham, and grew up around Franklin, Arrow Rock, and Boonville. When George was nine, he met the artist Chester Harding (1792-1866), who took lodging in Franklin during the summer of 1820 at Henry Bingham’s inn, The Square and Compass. Harding was seeking commissions for new portraits and finishing a portrait of Daniel Boone when the young Bingham, who already had shown an interest in sketching and drawing, was assigned to assist him. The meeting served as a catalyst for the aspiring artist, who was given paints and brushes by Harding with encouragement to continue painting on his own. Ten years later, as George was struggling with varied career directions in carpentry, religion, and the law, he encountered Harding for a second time, an important turning point in his career. Harding assessed Bingham’s talent and astutely advised him to begin his professional career by painting portraits on a commission basis. Following Harding’s advice from the outset, Bingham did indeed support himself as a portrait artist for the majority of his career. The funds he earned allowed him to travel to New York and Philadelphia and many other cities (and later to Europe) where he could learn by observing first hand many paintings by established masters.

During Bingham’s career, the largely self-taught artist painted as many as 500 portraits, many of important Missourians. He traveled frequently for commissions and reluctantly left behind his children and his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Hutchison, whom he married in 1836. Portraiture documents his lifelong friendship with his primary patron and confidant, Major James Sidney Rollins, who was an attorney in Columbia and later a powerful politician in Missouri. Bingham painted Maj. Rollins and members of Rollin’s family sometimes more than once. In 1837, he painted his first full-length portrait of Rollins’ 10-year old sister, Portrait of Sarah Helen Rollins (Private Collection), a now classic model of a frontier girl in her Sunday best.

From 1840-1844, Bingham’s technique and painting style evolved while he was based in Washington, D.C. and Petersburg, VA, where his portrait commissions included prominent citizens and politicians (including ex-President John Quincy Adams, painted twice, and Senator Daniel Webster) and where his genre scenes began to materialize. At this time he also became involved in Whig Party politics following the lead of his mentor Maj. Rollins.

When Bingham returned to his home in Missouri, he began to paint his best-known works—narrative scenes drawn from everyday life along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and portraits of people in St. Louis, Kansas City, and the many towns in-between. In 1846 he painted the first of his now iconic riverboatmen scenes, The Jolly Flatboatmen, showing the rough-and-tumble workers at rest and play. During this period Bingham produced many of his most masterful river scenes and genre paintings including Boatmen on the Missouri (1846, Saint Louis Art Museum); Lighter Relieving a Steamboat Aground (1846-47, Collection of the White House); Mississippi Boatman (1850, National Gallery, Washington); Shooting for the Beef (1850, Brooklyn Museum); and Fishing on the Mississippi (1851-82, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City). This period also included notable landscapes, among them the recently discovered Horse Thief (1852, Private Collection) which offers an allegorical tale with religious and political overtones, echoing the romantic style of Thomas Cole, and suggesting itself as a pendant to The Emigration of Daniel Boone (1851-52, Washington University, Saint Louis). Starting around 1847, Bingham began a parallel focus on political scenes in his “Election” series paintings, many featured in the collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum: The County Election, 1852; Stump Speaking, 1853-54; and The Verdict of the People, 1854-55.

In 1856, Bingham moved with his second wife (Eliza K. Thomas) to Paris, where he fulfilled his dream of studying Old Masters at the Louvre Museum. Finding Paris life a challenge, the Binghams then moved to Düsseldorf, Germany to be among the American artists of the Düsseldorf art colony, where the famous German-American history painter Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868)had established a studio and warmly welcomed Bingham as an accomplished artist and friend. In Germany, Bingham worked on important commissions from the Missouri State Legislature (life-size portraits of Presidents Washington and Jefferson that have since been destroyed by fire) as well as independent works. Upon his return to America in 1859, Bingham again resumed portraiture and political life. He was appointed State Treasurer of Missouri during the Civil War; later, in 1874, he became president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners and also Chief of Police. In 1875 he was appointed Adjutant-General of Missouri and thus was often referred to as General Bingham. At the end of his career, and quite ill, he was appointed the first Professor of Art at the University of Missouri in Columbia, a post that was cut short by his death in 1879. His third wife and widow, Martha Lykins Bingham, had a monument placed in Union Cemetery, near their home in Kansas City. In 2011, Missouri and the nation celebrated the bicentennial of Bingham’s birth.