“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.
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.
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.
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.
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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