Turning Loss Into Landscapes

The tortured artist is a common stereotype in our culture. We love the idea that in order to create, he or she must suffer greatly before putting brush to canvas and that pain is reflected in the fury of their artwork. So much suffering all for our benefit. 

Like all stereotypes, it’s rooted in some truth, especially for the great ones like Vincent Van Gogh or Jackson Pollock. We do love our tortured geniuses.

Rarer - and perhaps more intriguing — are those artists who channel the pain from their lives into their art in a much different way. Often, these artists use their skill to create beautiful works that stand as a glorious counterweight to the tragedies and suffering of real life.

George Caleb Bingham is just such a rarity. It’s almost as if he’s attempting to create an idyllic world in his artwork that serves as a balm to ease the ills of his real world.

Landscape with Waterwheel and Boy Fishing (1853) . Courtesy of  Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Landscape with Waterwheel and Boy Fishing (1853). Courtesy of Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

There is no question Bingham felt great personal pain in his life. He lost several loved ones at the cold, wet hands of nature, specifically, the Missouri River. Bingham’s grandfather drowned in the Missouri River, as did his beloved younger brother Isaac.  

His father was an indirect victim as well, succumbing to malaria spread by mosquitos that populated the river waters.  His father’s death left the Bingham family destitute.

(NOTE: We cover these and other tragedies from Bingham’s life in more detail in our film,The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham, click here to watch the trailer.)

And yet when taking in the pristine beauty of Waterwheel With Boy Fishing (above), you see an artist blending his skills and emotions to create an idyllic art in response to life’s harsh realities. It’s the result of an artist seeing the duality, the necessity and the cruelty of the river, this waterway that was so mighty, so vital and capable of giving as well as taking away.

This  balance of artistic beauty in the face of personal horror is evident throughout Bingham’s body of work. Throughout it we see recurring images of peaceful hills and valleys, calm rivers and hearty, happy everyday men, women and children living in the young American frontier.

In short, Bingham’s landscapes express a striking beauty and in them he shows an astounding affection for the land, rivers and wilderness that could be so cruel to him personally and to the people seeking to tame it.

Bingham also shows a similarly amazing compassion for a humankind that was so easily unkind to itself...but that’s a post for another time.

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Posted on December 23, 2015 .