A Deeper Look: Fur Traders Descending The Missouri, 1845

One of our goals in making The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham is to introduce Bingham and his art to people who aren’t familiar with or don’t recognize the significance of his work.

And perhaps no painting of Bingham’s is more significant than Bingham's Fur Traders Descending The Missouri, 1845.  

It’s one of Bingham’s most famous paintings. And it was long forgotten until it was “rediscovered” by the art world when it’s current owner, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchased it in 1933.

The painting is a remarkable work if only because prior to this painting, Bingham was best-known for his portraits. While there are some trademark Bingham elements in Fur Traders Descending The Missouri, 1845 — a balance of horizontals and diagonals to fix figures at right angles — there was little in his work up to this point to suggest he was poised to create a masterpiece that signaled his growth as an artist and announcing his place as a one of the first truly American fine artists.

Fur Traders Descending The Missouri, 1845  by George Caleb Bingham. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Fur Traders Descending The Missouri, 1845 by George Caleb Bingham. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The painting is one of several, along with many sketches, that he brought  with him on a spring trip to St. Louis from central Missouri in 1845. Technically it’s remarkable for its spare, geometric composition and deft brushstrokes.

Also it’s a prime example of the Luminism style at the forefront of painting in the mid-19th century. It features the effects of light playing over landscapes and emphasizes tranquillity with its still, contemplative waters and soft, delicate sky.

The painting is also significant in that it captures a quickly vanishing American frontier and lifestyle. Or as they  put it on The Met website, the painting’s “solemn, motionless scene immortalizes the vanished world of the American frontier, constructed for a northeastern audience.”

Author and art historian Susan Benford points out that the idyllic environment and its dream-like aspects of the painting are also at odds with the state of trapping at that time.

She writes that, “by 1845, the year in which Bingham created this now famous artwork, the profession was dominated by trading companies rather than the French voyagers who first pioneered the trade.”

One of the more historically interesting elements of the painting is the liberty cap worn by the man on the right.

Defined as “a brimless, limp, conical cap fitting snugly around the head,” the cap was used as a symbol of liberty by the French revolutionaries and was also worn in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. Also called Phrygian cap it was originally given to slaves  in ancient Rome upon their freedom from bondage.

And notice that dark creature on the left? Is that a cat? Or a bear cub? Bedford writes that it’s “either a tethered pet bear (according to Marilyn Stokstad, author of Art History), or a cat (according to Ingo F. Walther, editor of Masterpieces of Western Art).” Researchers at the Met have concluded that it is a bear.  

Bingham’s skill and craftsmanship, along with the emotions in his work that run the gamut from the tragic to the playful, make us envious of those lucky enough to be discovering this American treasure for the first time.

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Posted on June 3, 2016 .

Historical Discovery in Arrow Rock, Missouri

“Many are always praising the by-gone time, for it is natural that the old should extol the days of their youth; the weak, the time of their strength; the sick, the season of their vigor; and the disappointed, the spring-tide of their hopes.”

- George Caleb Bingham

Shooting our documentary, The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham, has given us the wonderful opportunity to shoot in and around Arrow Rock, Missouri, Bingham’s hometown on and off throughout the 1840s. A quaint, historic village surrounded by a beautiful midwest landscape, Arrow Rock is a filmmaker’s delight.

It’s also a historical tourist’s delight. Given its association with Westward Expansion, the Santa Fe Trail and Bingham, it’s no wonder the whole village of Arrow Rock is a designated National Historic Landmark. With many restored and/or preserved lodges, churches, farm houses and homesteads, Arrow Rock is significant for both its history and its architecture.


Here’s just a sampling of the many things to do in Arrow Rock:

  • Bingham’s House - Honestly, even if we weren’t there to shoot a documentary Bingham and were just visiting the town for fun, we’d still start by visiting this modest, Federalist-style house built in 1837.

George Caleb Bingham House. 

George Caleb Bingham House. 


  • Lyceum Theatre - Formerly a 19th Century Baptist church, the Lyceum is now home to one of Missouri's oldest professional regional theatres. Every year top-tier professional actors, directors, designers, and technicians come from around the country come to Arrow Rock for put on top incredible musicals and plays in this fantastic old building. You can find out more about the Lyceum here.

Lyceum Theatre.

Lyceum Theatre.


  • J.P. Sites Gun Shop - Gun enthusiasts can have a rifle repaired, converted from a flintlock to a percussion rifle, or purchase balls, lead, powder and caps to fire it.  A fixture on various tours of Arrow Rock, at the Gun Shop you can watch as gunsmiths practice their craft as well as take in the Christopher Collection of Early Missouri Firearms  is on display throughout the year in their Main Street Office. 

J.P. Sites Gun Shop.

J.P. Sites Gun Shop.


  • Dr. Sappington Museum - A Greek Revival-style structure, the museum honors Dr. John Sappington, entrepreneur and pioneer in medicine. Sappington was the first doctor to use treat fevers, in particular malaria, with quinine. No common country doctor, Sappington was a forward thinker in the medical field as well as a frontier merchant, a land speculator, a progressive agriculturalist, a moneylender, and a political fixture in Jacksonian politics.

Dr. Sappington Museum.

Dr. Sappington Museum.


  • Arrow Rock African-American Experience Museum - Using oral histories, records and artifacts, this inspirational museum helps tells the story of the struggle and triumph of there area’s African-Americans.

  • Boone’s Lick State Historic Site - Named for Daniel and Nathan Boone, sons of famed frontiersman Daniel Boone,  this historic site offers nature trails, natural springs and gorgeous picnic areas.

Scenic overlook at Boone's Lick State Historical Site.

Scenic overlook at Boone's Lick State Historical Site.


  • Mid-Missouri Museum of Independent Telephone Pioneer -  Features a fascinating collection of telephone history and artifacts that tells the story of early communication on the American frontier memorabilia, including pieces dating to the days before direct-dial systems.

  • Nicholas-Beazley Aviation Museum - Explore several interactive, educational exhibits along with videotaped personal stories and restored aircraft and memorabilia. A must-see for aviation enthusiasts.

Again, these are only a few of the many attractions in Arrow Rock. It’s also a great place for walking so you may want to check out the Arrow Rock walking tour. The tour is also a perfect way to discover the many restaurants and quaint stores tucked away in Arrow Rock.

Find out more information about all things Arrow Rock, by checking out Friendsofarrowrock.org and Visitmo.com.

Trust us, it’s definitely worth the trip.

For sneak previews and showings for the film and exclusive content on history, art and filmmaking, please join our mail list.

Posted on April 26, 2016 .

Saving Bingham: A Lawyer, the Governor and a Bunch of School Children

The year is 1974, and art collectors are circling like sharks.

They have their eyes on a valuable collection of George Caleb Bingham’s drawings slated to be dispersed and sold off, piece by piece, to fine art collectors scattered around the world.

The art world, always up for gossiping about money, is throwing around sale price predictions, some as high as $4 million.

But to St. Louis attorney Charles Valier, it’s not an art sale in the making--it’s a robbery in progress that’s about to relieve the state of Missouri of some of it’s most treasured historical artifacts.

The Auction Block
It all starts when the St. Louis Mercantile Library, in need of significant repairs, looks inward to see what assets it might part with to raise the cash it needs for the upgrades. 

Someone at the Library realizes they have a collection of drawings by Bingham, more than a 100 of them. The Library has owned these since receiving them as a gift from a former mayor of St. Louis, who had acquired them from Bingham himself way back in 1868.

But it’s been awhile since anyone has seen the drawings on display.  They’ve been safely hidden away in storage for quite some time.

One of Bingham's drawings for his masterpiece,  Fur Traders Descending the Missouri.   Image courtesy of Bingham Trust . 

One of Bingham's drawings for his masterpiece, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. Image courtesy of Bingham Trust

Now keep in mind that money’s tight in the non-profit art world, and the Library is losing money annually, and needs air conditioning to protect its collection.  The Library decides that a valuable collection of drawings not on display — whether also a priceless part of the state’s history or not — is an ideal asset for raising funds.

It's at this point that the Library announces its intentions to put the drawings up for sale.

Saving History
When Charles Valier reads of the Library’s intention to sell off the drawing he’s not sure it’s such a good idea. Might be good for the Library, but not for his home state of Missouri.

After all, these are more than just valuable sketches made by an important American artist as part of his process for creating some of America’s finest 19th Century artwork—no, these drawings are also irreplaceable pieces of Missouri’s history that were created by one of its most important historical figures, and they are in one collection, one of the largest for an American artist

So Valier talks about the impending sale to a friend and associate, Kit Bond, a collector of Bingham engravings. This was more than idle chit-chat among friends and associates.  At that time Bond happened to be the Missouri’s Governor and Valier his Counsel.

As Valier and Governor Christopher S. “Kit” Bond told an audience at the Saint Louis Art Museum in February 2015, they considered the idea that the drawings would live anywhere but in Missouri “a scandal.”

Governor Kit Bond describing the efforts to keep some of Bingham's most significant work in Missouri during a discussion at the Saint Louis Museum of Art in February 2015.   Images courtesy Steve Byers, Friends of Arrow Rock.

Governor Kit Bond describing the efforts to keep some of Bingham's most significant work in Missouri during a discussion at the Saint Louis Museum of Art in February 2015. Images courtesy Steve Byers, Friends of Arrow Rock.

Valier suggests to Bond that he lead a public subscription campaign to buy the drawings, these important artifacts of Missouri’s history that, ideally, should remain in Missouri where most of their related paintings are located.  Bond, having recently completed a successful statewide campaign understood how to appeal to the general public and the power of involving citizen contributors.

Working with curator and art expert Nancy Work - who once interviewed another famed Missouri artist and Bingham fan, Thomas Hart Benton - Valier negotiates on behalf of Bond with the Library. Soon the two sides come to an agreement: $1 million for the drawings.  

At least Valier and Bond think they have an agreement.

The governing board at the Library has second thoughts about the deal and back out. They don’t want to leave money on the table. They contend it’s their responsibility as stewards of the Library to get as much as they can and, well, they think they can much more than the agreed upon $1 million, maybe four times as much.

There’s much back and forth. Eventually both sides agree to retain two independent appraisers to value the drawings before finally settling on a new price: $1.8 million.

Curator Nancy Work (left) and lawyer Charles Valier recount their work in helping to raise more than $1 million in private money so the state of Missouri could purchase several Bingham's drawings and paintings.   Images courtesy Steve Byers, Friends of Arrow Rock.

Curator Nancy Work (left) and lawyer Charles Valier recount their work in helping to raise more than $1 million in private money so the state of Missouri could purchase several Bingham's drawings and paintings. Images courtesy Steve Byers, Friends of Arrow Rock.

Now all Bond needs to do is actually raise the money. And fast because if he can’t raise the money by the deadline for the sale, July 1, 1976, several east coast art dealers are eager to step in and, rumor has it, offer up to $4 million.

School Children To The Rescue
Bond and Valier can’t go to the state Legislature. Well, they could but they had just succeeded in raising money to save a historic architectural treasure, the Louis Sullivan Wainwright Building in St. Louis.  And at that time relations between the Republican Governor Bond and the Democrat-controlled state Legislature weren’t, shall we say, convivial to the point of prying the money loose for something of this nature.

So the answer was in private money. But how to raise enough private money to pay the negotiated price? Valier and Bond decide to take it to the people of Missouri.  Specifically, the young people.

Newspaper clippings about various schools' efforts to raise money to keep Bingham's work in Missouri.  Image courtesy of Bingham Trust .

Newspaper clippings about various schools' efforts to raise money to keep Bingham's work in Missouri. Image courtesy of Bingham Trust.

They determine to educate Missourians so they will understand the significance of Bingham as “Missouri’s artist.”   To do this they decide first to educate the children of Missouri, feeling the children will then educate their parents. They also send the drawings and paintings to seven museums spread across the State.  

School children around the state study Bingham and his art through a program put together by volunteers for the Bingham drive.  Bingham is integrated into their curriculum and Bond sets aside a week for the schools to concentrate on Bingham.  By the ingenuity of the school children they are able to raise the first $40,000 toward the purchase of Bingham’s drawings.  A little here, a little there from kids who care a little bit really adds up.

Figuring wisely that no one would want to be shamed by the benevolence of Missouri school children, Bond leverages the school children’s $40,000 by stumping the State to “inspire” individuals and business, as well as the state legislature, to raise $2 million.  Over 100,000 Missourians respond to the Governor’s challenge.  The extra money going toward purchasing an additional drawing and their care and maintenance.

And that’s how a lawyer, a governor and a bunch of Missouri school children managed to keep Bingham’s drawings at home in Missouri.

Thanks to them, you can see half of them on the east side of the state at the Saint Louis Art Museum and the other half at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

After all, our history belongs to us…and it belongs with us.

To learn more about Bingham and for updates about the documentary, The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham, due in 2016, please join our mail list.


Posted on March 2, 2016 .

Chasing Authenticity

One of the delights of making The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham is the chance to shoot historical recreations. Our production team is made up of acknowledged experts at re-creating historically accurate scenes filled with props and costumes that hold up to the scrutiny of professional and amateur historians alike.

From George Washington’s Mount Vernon to the battlefields of the Civil War, Vietnam and World War IIwe’re constantly on the lookout for ways to enhance our creative work with historical accuracy, and trust us, that kind of initiative can take us in some very interesting directions.

Churchhill Clark (on right in pink shirt and liberty cap), one of his handmade dugout canoes and the Wide Awake Films crew on location for The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham.

For instance, during production of this film, we knew we needed a hand-made dugout canoe to recreate Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, one of Bingham’s most famous paintings.  Our Director, Shane Seley, is also a Civil War re-enactor with a large network of other history nerds on his Facebook feed.  So, he reached out to them to see if they might know of someone with a dugout canoe.   

Within 2 hours someone posted a link about Churchill Clark, an actual descendant of William Clark - ya’ know Lewis & Clarke.   Church, as he’s known, happened to be paddling his way down the entire length of the Missouri River, all 2,341 miles of it - in a dugout canoe he had carved himself!   

So, Shane reached out to Church via his Facebook page, Dugout Canoe Love.  Each day Churchill would answer email and messages after getting off the river.

Incredibly, Church was arriving in Kansas City (he was going down the river) the same day Wide Awake Films had scheduled to film the dugout canoe scenes. That’s serendipity!  

Church and Knotty, his dugout canoe, did an excellent job standing in as the Fur Trader and we were fortunate to meet such an amazing soul.  (Churchill’s an interesting guy to say the least, and we’ll revising him in a later, more detailed blog post about the man and his craft.)

Our luck in meeting Churchill’s aside, most often our quest for accuracy follows a less dramatic but no less fortuitous process.

Sources and Inspiration
The process begins in our in-house library and scouring the Internet for vintage photographs, period illustrations and other historical references. We cast a wide net for inspiration because you never know where a good idea might come from to create the most authentic backdrop, set or costume possible.  

And most importantly we look to the historical documentation itself. Too often, filmmakers believe they can heighten history with their own narrative twist, when in most instances a little digging reveals that the actual history is far more compelling.

Archival materials are a key starting point in Wide Awake Film's process for producing historically accurate re-creations.

When it comes to creating a historical re-enactment for a specific time period, there are a number of considerations that can help elevate the look from a simple costume to a historically accurate re-enactment ensemble.

The Undeniable Rightness of Being Accurate
The first differentiator begins with the person in the clothing. Whether a principal or an extra, the visual record of the era you’re trying to recreate should be your guide.

If casting for an industrial scene in the early part of the 20th Century, study pictures from the era and know the history. European immigration was especially at a peak at the time. The faces and body styles should reflect this.

And don’t forget the personal hygiene habits of the era you’re recreating.  A daily shower or bath is still a fairly modern luxury.

The real thing? Or a detailed re-creation? Even a history geek would have trouble telling the difference.

The real thing? Or a detailed re-creation? Even a history geek would have trouble telling the difference.

Next, it’s important to create the right silhouette. For the ladies, that means having the proper foundation garments (petticoats, stays and corsets) under the clothing to create the right form and drape.

Fabrics, trim and textiles chosen for the clothing should rely on choices that include quilting cotton, handkerchief linen and quality silk. Modern fabrics, especially when not used in large enough quantity, cannot produce the right historical profile and the clothes will lack the necessary presence.

For the men, in any recreation pre-1960’s, it’s the hat that makes the silhouette. Spend your money on getting the right headgear and the rest of the re-creation costume will fall into place.

Also, look to the tailoring of the time. For example, if your actor is thin, then accent it with close-fitting clothing versus putting them into oversized baggy duds.

Historical re-enactments are not only about getting the clothing right but also the hair, accessories, facial hair and probably most important, the attitude of the era. Even with all the right clothing you can’t fake character and swagger.

Another thing that’s hard to fake is clothing that has the age, character and wear and tear that can only be earned over time, creating an outfit that not only looks like you’ve worn it out but also possibly died in it, too.

And, most importantly, always have experts on set. We always involve people with decades of study and interest in the material culture, household goods and history of the time we’re trying to depict.  

Our true secret is hiring the best re-enactors of the history we’re portraying. These are the people that come on set ready to shoot with thousands of dollars of their own equipment and a brain full of knowledge about their historic era.

Wide Awake is really lucky to have some amazing folks in this regard who like to come out and “play” with us on our historic recreations! Here are a few tips and tricks for adding legitimacy to a re-enactment costume:

  • Work, exercise and sleep in it so it looks like it’s yours
  • Use sandpaper on the elbows, knees and cuffs to give the stress points a worn-in look
  • If called for, stain your outfit with mud, oil, dirt, grease or tea
  • Leave clothes out in the sun to fade the color – this can take months
  • Replicate the hairstyles and facial hair of the time period
  • Avoid wearing cosmetic make up, fingernail polish, non-period wrist watches, modern glasses, etc.
  • Leave your cell phone at home

Finally, below is a picture from one of our favorite reenactments. It’s a favorite for many reasons: the subject, the result, the awesome talent we were fortunate enough to work with on this project.

We created a Negro Leagues Baseball dugout (circa 1940s) in honor of the All Star Game held in 2013 in Kansas City. We did this with a wardrobe budget of $100 and about a weeks’ notice.

Amazing what can be done with $100, great actors and a tight deadline.

To read more about our baseball re-enactment, click here.

NOTE: A version of what appears above appeared on the Wide Awake Films web site, which you can find here.

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Posted on February 10, 2016 .

A Deeper Look: The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846

Here’s something most people don’t know about George Caleb Bingham: He was one of the first American artists to “go viral.”  

This achievement, as with most of the peaks in Bingham’s life and artistic career, is a confluence talent, time and place.

That is, Bingham’s incredible talent that he worked tirelessly to hone was mixed with his good fortune to be living on the edge of the Western frontier in a vibrant, maturing country, all this at a time of great social and technologic advancements. Together, all of these combined to create the perfect environment for a fine art painting to resonate with upper class and the common man and woman alike.

The Painting

The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846 is Bingham’s most famous painting and among his more important. By all accounts it’s the painting that made Bingham’s career.

The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846 . Image courtesy  The Metropolitan Museum of Art .

The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Its scene is a common one from 19th-century life: several men floating along a mighty river in a flatboat loaded with furs and goods. A man steers while the others goof off, dancing and playing music.

From a purely artistic standpoint it’s remarkable for its vibrant use of color. It has an energy that makes it a thrill just to look at it.

As Franklin Kelly, chief curator and deputy director at The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. where the painting hangs, told The New York Times in May 2015, The Jolly Flatboatmen is “a stunning, outstanding painting. It does so many things so well — the exuberance of the dancing figures and the clarity he (Bingham) got with all the other figures. It’s balanced but also so energetic.

But to really understand the painting’s importance and impact, you have to look beyond Bingham’s skillful brushwork and engaging imagery to its larger role as a significant American painting.

National Significance

Despite its western setting art commentators contend the painting is designed to speak to an Eastern audience. It’s calling them westward, an enticement to let them know the west is out there waiting for anyone who wishes to seek it.

Or as Kelly told The Times, the painting, “supported the notion that the West was there for us to take, for American expansion.

"It's part of that American experience, that 'Go West, young man.' But it's also about work and play. It's very democratic. These are working people; they're wearing their ordinary clothes — tattered — but they're having a good time. It's that notion of a democratic art in a democratic society."

Given the paintings vibrancy and subject matter, all it needed was the formats to conducive to helping it spread in fame and following.

Going Viral

Enter the popularity of mezzotint engravings and lithograph prints.

Relatively easy and cheap to produce, mezzotints and lithographs made it possible for people of all social strata to bring fine works of art into their homes, be it a brownstone on Park Avenue South in New York City or a sod home on the range in Kansas. By some estimations at one point there were more than 18,000 prints of The Jolly Flatboatmen to be found in American homes and places of business.

It would be a remarkable story of fine art meeting populist appeal if it ended there, but of course there’s even more to the story.

Once Was Lost

Bingham’s painting was commissioned for $290 to the the American Art Union, a group dedicated to promoting uniquely American art.  The Union then held a raffle for the painting and it went home with the raffle winner, Benjamin van Schaick, a New York grocer.   

It eventually found its way into the collection of the renowned Pell family, before making headlines in 1986 when it sold for a then record sum of $6 million and became part of the Richard and Jane Manoogian Foundation collection. Though owned by the Manoogian Foundation, the painting has hung in the National Gallery for many years.

Then in May 2015 The National Gallery made it an official part of their collection when they bought it from the Manoogian Foundation. Though The National Gallery won’t disclose how much they paid for it, it’s a safe bet they paid a lot more than Manoogian did.

Viral Again?

In an interview with NPR at the time of the purchase, Rusty Powell, director at The National Gallery, called The Jolly Flatboatmen, “the most important genre painting in American history" So it’s no wonder the painting went viral in the 1800s.

How about we make it go viral in the 21st Century? Please share this blog by using the “Share” button below.



Posted on February 3, 2016 .

Back In Time

One of the fascinating aspects of George Caleb Bingham’s story -- telling it and hearing it -- is being transported back into the Missouri of his lifetime, in particular around the areas of Franklin and Arrow Rock where he grew up.

During his lifetime Bingham witnessed his adopted state grow from a frontier territory to an industrious and productive state serving as the jumping off point for settling the rest of the American west.

J.P. Sites Gun Shop in Arrow Rock. Photo courtesy of  Friends of Arrow Rock.

J.P. Sites Gun Shop in Arrow Rock. Photo courtesy of Friends of Arrow Rock.

To chronicle the story of his growth from boyhood to manhood, from apprentice to artist, in our documentary is to find yourself immersed in his world. (You can watch the trailer here.)

If you were to visit the Missouri Territory soon after the War of 1812, you would find its population growing rapidly, driven by the federal government’s emphasis on taming the land in the areas that made up a large part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

You would find the Missouri landscape diverse and beautiful, affordable and plentiful. Families and individuals from eastern states and abroad are descending upon the area, seeking opportunity, a place to make a home. Throughout the 1810s settlers continue to pour into Missouri in the largest rush of immigration in American history at that time.

Production Still, The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham. Photo courtesy of Brett Pruitt,  East Market Studios .

Production Still, The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham. Photo courtesy of Brett Pruitt, East Market Studios.

Industry and trade are growing with the territory and across the young nation. Land speculation is running rampant. Economic boom is followed by economic bust leading to the Panic of 1819.

This is also the year that Bingham and his family, having fallen on hard times, move to the Missouri Territory. It takes a year or two for the economic troubles to reach the Missouri Territory, so when the Bingham family arrives, small towns are still springing up all across the state, some booming with rapid growth for a time before leveling off or dying while others not only survived but and thrived.

In 1821 Missouri enters statehood and if you were living in Franklin near the banks of the Missouri River then, you would find yourself immersed in a distinctly American steamboat culture.

Cannon fire of salutations ring out as you rush to river’s edge to watch a steamboat -- specifically designed for the Missouri river so it’s lighter and faster than those on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers --  carrying passengers and goods such as whisky, flour and sugar along the mighty river. The river is also dotted with flatboats and keelboats, though their numbers are dwindling as steam power rises to prominence. 

But Franklin is somewhat protected by a diverse economic position. To the west, the Great Plains and the Southwest are important to the growth of the town thanks to the Santa Fe Trail, which winds from Missouri to New Mexico and proves such a lucrative trade route that eventually it almost single-handedly pulls the entire state out of depression.

Living in towns like Franklin or Arrow Rock in the 1800s, you have several options for your livelihood: farmer (most likely growing hemp, tobacco and to a lesser degree wheat or corn), dry goods retailer, or blacksmith, among others.

In fact, it’s quite possible that you would wear several hats and be skilled at everything from raising livestock to carpentry to shoeing horses to building a wagon. Or, if you have the proper training, lawyers, judges, doctors and ministers are always in demand.

Arrow Rock Public Hall.

Arrow Rock Public Hall.

Then again, perhaps you serve your fellow Missourians as their representative in politics and government, helping shape and define the young state. The pro-slavery Democratic party rules the state for the most part, but in 1836 to the Whig party forms to counter the Democrats by opposing the expansion of slavery.

Living in the young state, you witness slavery almost daily. Maybe not to the degree found in deep southern states, but enough to know it’s an important force of your economy and your culture. Such a large force, in fact, that slavery will be the basis for the perhaps the greatest American novel, soon to be written by a young man hailing from Hannibal, Missouri.

Where you hail from is important, though it isn’t necessarily where you will stand for long. Chances are you and many people you know will move around quite often during this time period. Sometimes out of opportunity, sometimes out of necessity. Your horizons will go beyond Missouri and even America. Between 1835 and 1877, Bingham himself lived in or visited almost 20 different cities in America and Europe.

But wherever he went, Bingham always took little bit of Missouri with him, always eventually returning home to Missouri.

To us -- filmmakers who’ve made a name for ourselves by creating documentaries that are historically accurate right down to the buttons on a Virginia confederate soldier’s uniform -- it’s been a wonderful trip, journeying back to Bingham’s time to tell his story.

We hope you’ll enjoy the trip back to Bingham’s Missouri when you see our film later this year.

We also recommend that you experience Bingham’s hometown of Arrow Rock first hand. It’s truly a destination town, filled with history, architecture and the arts. You can find information about visiting Arrow Rock by checking out the web site for our partners, the Friends of Arrow Rock.

If you would like to read more details about Bingham’s life and times in Arrow Rock, you can download this article from the Friends of Arrow Rock site.

For sneak previews, showings and exclusive content on history, art and filmmaking, please join our mail list.

Posted on January 27, 2016 .

5 To Follow: Fine Art on Instagram

Instagram -- that most visual of all the popular social networks -- is a natural place to find some delightful and unique points of view on fine art. 

Here are five you should be following on Instagram:


Who Is This Person?: Ai Weiwei, a fantastic artist
What You Will See: Images of his work and scene from his life (You know you want to know.)


What Is This Thing?: A clever Instagram feed
What You Will See: Fine art with oh-no-you-didn’t! captions


What Is This Place?: The Louvre...it's kind of a big deal
What You Will See: Some of the finest art ever produced by homo sapiens


Who Is This Person?:  Writer going on about art things and life things
What You Will See: A mix of fine art and modern living


What Is This Place?: L.A. County Museum of Art
What You Will See:  Fine art, fun art and a little bit of celebrity star power

Also, please remember to follow us on Instagram @bingham.film for behind the scenes photos from the making of our documentary The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham.



Posted on January 20, 2016 .

A Deeper Look: County Election, 1852


“There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.” - Buffalo Springfield


Democracy can be messy. That’s as true today as it was in George Caleb Bingham’s lifetime.

Now that we’re officially in an election year and races from President all the way down to your local alderman will begin heating up, it’s a perfect time to take a closer look at Bingham’s renowned painting, County Election, 1852.

To put it in context, the painting was one of a series of painting Bingham created in the 1840-50s that depicting the American democracy and political life in the Western frontier. Collectively the paintings have come to be known as his Election Series, with County Election, 1852 being the most famous of the political works.

As with many of Bingham’s larger-scale paintings — larger in terms of broad social commentary of the country he loved as well as the actual size of the canvass — you’re initially overwhelmed by the seeming chaos he’s managed to capture.

But let your eyes linger over the various scenes of the painting and soon what’s happening here becomes clearer.

Spend time with the many scenes and you discover each is a well-honed vignette telling its own little story about the electoral process. This sprawling painting is really a collection of little stories that — when you later step back and reassemble them — present a sweeping, often critical, portrait of 19th century democracy in America.

County Election, 1852

What’s amazing is that in County Election, 1852 we see Bingham expose the flaws in our democratic process while at the same time literally painting a portrait of our democratic ideal. Here are some of Bingham’s insightful visual comments that critics and educators urge you to look for in the painting:

  • At the top of the courthouse steps you see a man in red hat swearing on the Bible, possibly swearing that he has not yet voted. Do you believe him?
  • You also see a judge recording a vote in a ledger. The vote comes from the man yelling his choice to election officials behind the judge. Would it affect who you vote for if you had to yell out your choice in public rather than cast a private ballot?
  • Behind the man calling out his vote you see a nattily-dressed man engaging in a little electioneering at a distance that today would be considered illegally close to to the polling station.
  • There, on the left, another dandy of a man is dragging a limp, perhaps passed out, man to the polls to cast a vote. Notice how the dandy shoots a knowing glance at the candidate in blue.
  • Now look near the front on the left. You see a vote being bought with liquor (a common practice in 19th and early 20th century America) as an African American offers hard cider to chubby man sprawled in a chair.
  • Beside the steps to the courthouse a man tosses a coin. Is this how we make choices at the polls? Or is Bingham saying that even then money ultimately determines the winner?
  • And note the two boys playing mumbly peg with a knife. Perhaps a reminder that this young America is a country forged by violence? (A revolutionary war in the past and a civil war lying ahead, though of course Bingham would have no way of predicting the latter.)
  • More ominously, a tattered figure in the front right corner hangs his bandaged head, perhaps to imply that for all the apparent electoral excitement of the voting public, mob violence always lies just beneath the surface.
  • And the major flaw in our system at that time is signified by what you don’t see in the painting: Slaves or women participating in democracy.

Despite pointing out these and other flaws, also manages to convey the luster that shines through in even a flawed democracy. A couple of his shining points:

  • Because there is no central figure or scene but rather a collection of scenes and vignettes, Bingham illustrates that every man’s vote counts the same as the next, that all (white) men are equal in the American democratic process.
  • The press is represented by a group of men gathered around a newspaper, a nod to both the importance of the fourth estate’s role in a healthy democracy and the citizenry’s duty to inform itself.


It's Personal
Interestingly, there is a third layer to the painting that goes beyond the plusses and minuses of American democracy. For Bingham, there is a personal layer in the painting.

Bingham inspiration for the painting was born in the particularly nasty election in 1846* in which he was a candidate running for a seat in the Missouri state legislature. Bingham won but was subsequently removed from office through political machinations by his opponent, E.D. Sappington.

In the painting, Bingham portrays Sappington as the shady candidate in the top hat. Although Bingham ultimately chose not to contest the election results, he accused the Sappington camp of, among other dirty tricks, trading liquor for votes. Bingham also voiced his suspicions about the accuracy of the vote count given that Sappington was related to the election judge and one of the officials overseeing the Saline County election that year.


Self Portrait
And it should be noted that Bingham painted himself into his picture. He’s the one in a stovepipe hat, resting on the steps of the courthouse, surrounded by a playful dog and with two guys in white hats peering over his shoulder.

What’s Bingham up to? Tallying votes? Considering whom to cast his vote for?

Or maybe he’s drawing sketches for a marvelous painting that tells the story of American democracy in his lifetime.


Bonus Material: Part of Bingham’s creative process was to begin with drawings before moving to canvass. The St. Louis Art Museum has a fun interactive feature where you can see if you can match the people in Bingham's drawings to those in the final work of art. You can check that out here.


*Editor's Note: The year of the election has been corrected per comments below from Charles E. Valier. When it was originally posted, the story incorrectly identified the election as taking place in 1850.


Addendum 7/12/16
Valier, a St. Louis attorney and noted Bingham enthusiast -- Valier was among those who worked to keep much of Bingham's artwork and drawings in Missouri in the 1970s - writes us to clarify a few points.

In an email Valier says that, although Bingham never identified figures in his genre paintings, one of his contemporaries did—Dr. Oscar Fitzland Potter, who himself once sat for a Bingham portrait (The Student, 1848).

Valier also maintains "there is a contemporaneous photograph (daguerreotype) of E. D. Sappington that corresponds to the figure in Stump Speaking, and several people have come forward to identify Marmaduke.  

“As to William Sappington,” Valier writes, "his portrait by Bingham bears a close resemblance to the clerk in County Election identified by Potter. The insertion of William Sappington instead of the figure in his preliminary drawing suggests a conscious decision by Bingham to display the Sappington power which he speaks at length about on December 16 and 17, 1846.”


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Posted on January 13, 2016 .

Behind Our Doc: Shooting at The Met

As part of the making of The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham, we had the pleasure — and challenge — of filming at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Met, as it’s called, recently featured the exhibit, Navigating the West, George Caleb Bingham and The River, and this gave our production team a fantastic opportunity to not only feature Bingham’s work in a museum setting, but also to speak with a world-renown American art curator to gain a deeper understanding of the place that Bingham holds in the fine art world.

Arrival in NYC

Our production team flew into New York in September 2015 near the end of the exhibit’s well-received run at The Met. (Here’s a warm review of the exhibit from The New York Times.)

It was a busy time in New York, even by the standards of The City That Never Sleeps: The US Open tennis championships were wrapping up, Fashion Week was in full swing and there were several events taking place at the United Nations. Of course, all this activity drove up the price of even modest hotel rooms up to $900 per night. But then again, part of the fun of visiting NYC is complaining about the cost of everything, isn’t it?

What’s more, our filming at The Met took place on Sept. 11. Everywhere in the city we saw wreaths and memorials. Naturally, emotions around the anniversary were palpable.

The Art of Filming Art

In addition to filming the Navigating the West exhibit, we’re were also scheduled to interview curator Betsy Kornhauser. Kornhauser is the Alice Brown Pratt Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, and a specialist in regionalist painters including Bingham.

We intended both the filming of the exhibit and our Kornhauser interview to be key pieces of the documentary. With limited time and access to such a public, hallowed place, we made sure we had a clear production plan in place but one that remained fluid enough so that we could react and change course as needed.

Sure enough, our interview with Kornhauser started of with an unexpected hurdle.

When we arrived at the room in The Met where we originally wanted to film the interview, we discovered it filled with nude statues. Now, we’re not prudes and we love art, but from a cinematic standpoint, this would have resulted in us framing Kornhauser with some odd background elements over her shoulder.

Fur Traders Descending The Missouri, 1845. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Reacting quickly, we instead set up  to film our interview with her in front of Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. In the end it turned out to be one of those “happy accidents” that was actually more fitting for the project than what we had initially planned.

That other half of our production assignment at The Met - filming the Bingham exhibit - turned out just as beautifully but also not without its problems to solve.

From the early stages of planning our shoot at The Met, it was our intention to only show Bingham’s original paintings hanging within the exhibit and filmed in 4K rather than dropping post-production digital scans of the paintings into the film. This was important to our film because the originals have such a luminance to them. They respond so amazingly to the light in the room that digital scans wouldn’t do Bingham’s work justice.

“If you care about art, you should care about this artist. Because we do.”

Of course, the logistics of filming fine art can be daunting. Lighting and creative framing are big challenges and so too is composition. That is, we didn’t want to show in the background any work that we hadn’t cleared the rights to for using in our film. This last issue alone makes arranging permission to film in a major art institution a subject large enough for a whole other blog post.

Interestingly, one of the biggest challenges of filming fine art has nothing at all to do with lighting or cameras or composition or rights clearances—it’s the procedures you must, understandably, observe while working around the art.  

Before shooting, our crew was educated on how to walk around paintings. For instance, if you bend over to pick up something, you must take a few steps back before rising back up. Otherwise you just might knock a priceless painting off the wall.  

As part of our trip, we were also treated to the amazing experience of touring the underbelly of The Met. Everywhere in the basement storage area you find signs with the unusual warning, “Yield for Art.” This makes sense when you consider that the traffic through that area involves works of art so valuable, you’d rather crash a Ferrari than damage something stored there.

Luckily we managed to get out of the place without damaging any priceless works of art AND get our informative interview with Kornhauser AND capture some stunning footage of Bingham’s artwork.

The Importance of This Shoot

From the very beginning we believed the point of view of the respected “east coast art establishment” would be important to the resonance of our film, pre-empting anyone unfamiliar with Bingham who might reflexively dismiss him as “just a regional artist.”

Maybe we have Midwestern chip on our shoulder, but it’s not a stretch to say that many people on both coasts might be disinclined to take seriously a 19th century painter who lived and worked in Missouri.

So if nothing else it lends credence to Bingham and his legacy when our film has respected fine art curators at major institutions in cities like New York say, essentially, “If you care about art, you should care about this artist.  Because we do.”


To learn more about Bingham and for updates about the documentary, The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham, due in 2016, please join our mail list.

Posted on January 6, 2016 .

Growing Up In (and With) America

George Caleb Bingham had the good fortune to come of age as a man and an artist on the edge of the burgeoning West.

This combination of a young man’s restlessness in the midst of a growing nation offered Bingham a unique perspective on The Ideal for which his growing nation was striving.

And when young America showed itself to be less than ideal — often full of death, brutality and violence — Bingham’s youthful sense of hope for his country led him to create paintings that worked to remind America of its promise.

Being young and talented, he was able to combine a young person’s idealism with an artist’s deft eye, effectively making him an important witness as his young country grew from its own adolescence into adulthood.

This fortune of time and place allowed Bingham to capture both the daily concerns of the average man, woman and child alongside the sweeping issues of the day in this unsettled country.

Cottage Scenery, 1845 . Courtesy  Corcoran Gallery of Art .

Cottage Scenery, 1845. Courtesy Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Like the country he loved, Bingham was defined by restlessness. For proof look no further than his choice of a career as a portrait painter at time when day-to-day survival was often a struggle.

Choosing to be a fine artist can be considered reckless in any time or place, but who in their right mind chooses to be an artist when everyone — not just struggling artists — is one bad harvest away from the threat of starvation?

Bingham’s youth and restlessness would serve him well from the very beginning. Early in his art career he was self-taught, and it speaks to his natural talent and keen eye that much of the art he created during this early period is considered among his finest work.

The Verdict of The People, 1854 . Courtesy  St. Louis Museum of Art .

The Verdict of The People, 1854. Courtesy St. Louis Museum of Art.

Growing up in his time and place gave him the opportunity to be one of just a handful of artists to capture America as it came of age.  He helped shape the image of itself then and created a record that brings alive those 19th century hopes for 21st century viewers.

As Walt Whitman did with words, so Bingham did with his brush, wielding it to capture the glory of America whenever he recognized it. When his country fell short of its promise, Bingham was capable of using his art to re-affirm that promise, as if to remind his country of its potential.

But there is a depth even beyond that in his work. Bingham was no mere jingoist. He was a heartfelt artist whose work conveys much of the dramatic irony in the unfolding story of America.

Look closely at his work and you see that even when he’s showing The Ideal, he admits to the cracks beneath the surface of his beloved country. In his paintings there is often chaos at the edges or just out of the frame, discontent looming somewhere over the horizon.

The young do crazy things. This is as true of young nations as it is of young men and women. Fortunately, Bingham was there with his eye and his brush to capture it for us all.

To learn more about Bingham and for updates about the documentary, The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham, due in 2016, please join our mail list.


Posted on December 30, 2015 .