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.

To get the latest news about The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham, including screenings in 2016, and other information, please join our mail list.




Posted on December 23, 2015 .

Understanding vs. Understood

Every artist walks a line between their need to understand and their need to be understood.

Striving to understand the world feeds the artist’s work; the need for the work to be understood by the world feeds the artist’s soul.

As we show in our documentary, The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham, when people misunderstand or misinterpret a work of art, the controversy can outlast a lifetime.

Perhaps no other nineteenth century American painting has been at the root of controversy more than Bingham’s General Order No. 11.



In April 1863, following a string of bloody raids waged by anti-slavery Jayhawkers from Kansas and pro-slavery Bushwackers from Missouri, Union General Thomas Ewing ordered anyone suspected of giving aid to the pro-slavery Bushwhackers to be placed under arrest.  This included women and children, some of whom were guilty only of being related to a Bushwhacker, who had simply went home to get a meal or a good night’s sleep.

Soon after issuing the order, General Ewing commandeered Bingham’s vacant home in Kansas City for use as a jail to house a group of women under arrest for suspicion aiding the Bushwackers… many of these women were their wives, sisters and mothers.  Under circumstances that remain unclear, the ad hoc prison suffered a catastrophic structural collapse, killing several of the internees and maiming many more.

A few days later the Bushwhackers, riding under the infamous William Quantrill, rode into Lawrence, Kansas, killing almost 200 men and boys and setting fire to much of the town.

In response to “The Lawrence Massacre” General Ewing issued General Order Number 11. Order Number 11 called for the forced evacuation of the citizens of four western Missouri counties without regard to allegiance or affiliation. It also ordered their property destroyed to deprive the Bushwhackers of supplies and shelter.

It was the horror of this forced migration and wanton destruction that Bingham sought to capture in his painting General Order No. 11.  Also called, Martial Law, it would haunt his reputation long after he was gone.



General Order No. 11 (George Caleb Bingham/Cincinnati Art Museum/The Edwin and Virginia Irwin Memorial/The Bridgeman Art Library International)

In reacting to the individual tragedy as well as the larger tragedy of the war, Bingham created a mural dramatizing the horrors of the war, horrors that were personal, cultural and political.

His painting General Order No. 11 is a visual parable with Biblical allegories that attempts to speak for the all the parties swept up in the horror of the civil war fought along the Kansas/Missouri border: the brutalities inflicted by Kansas Jayhawkers, distinguished by their red-leggings, as well as the women and children destined to become collateral damage.

And, perhaps most forward thinking for the times, it also portrays the African-American slaves as active participants in the story of the war and walking away from the scene into an unsure future.



Ironically, in using this sweeping point of view to capture the scope of the tragedy and the war itself, Bingham inadvertently opened the door for a range of interpretations he may not have intended.

Joan Stack, curator of art collections at the State Historical Society of Missouri, and a featured expert in our documentary, wrote about the controversies surrounding the painting in an article for the Missouri Historical Review.

Stack outlines no fewer than three divergent interpretations of the painting.   

Southern apologists looked to its depiction of Federal excess as implicitly pro-Confederate, while Union sympathizers dismissed the work as propaganda.

Reconciliationists, who in the spirit of Reconstruction stressed common valor and shared blame for the war, viewed the painting as promoting “reunion through the admission of equivalent blame for the war’s atrocities both Unionists and rebels.”

The third group, Emancipationists, stressed how Bingham’s inclusion of slaves in the painting, underlined the real causes of the war and made explicit connection between the Biblical Adam, and slavery as America’s ‘original sin.’”

As for the artist himself, Bingham defended his painting and his reputation as anti-slavery and pro-union, but maintained his pride as a Virginia-born southerner who came of age as both a man and an artist in pre-Civil War Missouri.  

The story of his General Order No. 11 is just one of many that make Bingham’s life and work so compelling more than a century and half later.

For more information about the upcoming documentary film, The American Artist: The Life and Times of George Caleb Bingham, including release dates and screening in 2016, please join our mail list.

Posted on December 16, 2015 .

5 to Follow: History on Twitter

Good things can happen when you mix history and social media. Like, say, learning new things, connecting with new people and sometimes even laughing (out loud) at things those people share with you.

With that in mind, here are five fun, smart, history-related Twitter feeds you should be following:


1. @TweetsofOld

Self Description: “Real one-line brevities from old newspapers as they appeared—or close.”

Sample Tweet: “A hand-organ woman without any monkey accompaniment, made music for the hoodlums on the streets this week. IN1879”


2. @SlateVault

What You Will Find: Slate magazine's Twitter feed for The Vault, their blog of historical treasures, oddities and delights big and small.

Sample Tweet: “The CIA's WWII Guide to Sowing Office Dysfunction Perfectly Describes Your Toxic Workplace.”  Here’s the document.


3. @TodaysDocument

What You Will Find: Twitter posts highlighting an image or document from the US National Archives and related to that day in history .

Sample Tweet: Pic of “Machine gun crew north of the Chongchon River targets a North Korean position.” Here’s the pic.


4. @MissedInHistory

What You Will Find: Twitter feed for the Stuff You Missed In History Class web site, blog and podcast.

Sample Tweet: “Ridiculous History: The Emu War.” Here’s the blog post.


5. @GirlsOwn

Self description: “Genuine replies from 1880s and 1890s problem pages, try applying them to your 21st century woes. If all else fails, try Cod Liver Oil.”

Sample Tweet: “Do not take a hot bath at any time, but a warm one once a week does good.”


For more fun and interesting history-related content -- and updates about our documentary The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham, due out in 2016 -- please join our mail list.





Posted on December 9, 2015 .

From Bingham to Benton (And Back Again)

Throughout our documentary, The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham, we pause to examine Bingham’s legacy.

Perhaps Bingham’s greatest direct influence was on another Missouri artist, Thomas Hart Benton.

If you’re not familiar with Benton, he was a painter and muralist at the forefront of The Regionalist art movement in the early-to-mid-20th century. Hailing from Neosho, Missouri, Benton’s style, process and subject matter were all self-admittedly influenced by Bingham’s work.

There are numerous examples of the ties binding the two men’s work, such as Benton often recreating in his own work scenes from the Missouri of Bingham’s lifetime.

But perhaps the clearest example of Bingham’s influence on Benton’s work can be recognized in a comparison between Benton’s mural “The Sources of County Music” (1975) which hangs in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, and Bingham’s, “The County Election” (1852).

Comparing the two paintings, created more than a century apart, is to witness Bingham’s influence reaching across the years as Benton’s vision reaches back to meet it halfway.

The folks over at THIRTEEN have created a quick, fantastic video that looks at the ties between the two paintings. You can view it here.

First you notice their similarities in style and color palette. On the surface both paintings depict scenes of multiple dramas acted out by a cross section of Americans. At first glance the paintings appear chaotic, but spend time with the each artwork and eventually it reveals its unifying theme. For Bingham’s painting it’s American democracy in action; for Benton, it’s the roots of this most American of musical art forms.

To be clear, Bingham’s influence on Benton and his work extends beyond the canvas. They worked in similar fashions too.

In an excellent online article for Antiques & Fine Art Magazine, Randall R. Griffey, associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writes that, like Bingham, Benton created preliminary drawings for his major works.

Below you will find an example of Bingham's process of moving from sketch to painting. First we see an detailed drawing of an individual:

Skillet beater (2) [from "Jolly Flatboatmen in Port"], ca. 1857. Bingham Trust, Lent by the People of Missouri, Gift of the Kansas City Star Company (on loan to Saint Louis Art Museum)

Then we can see how that character is transformed as Bingham brings that character to life among all the others in the painting The Jolly Flatboatmen:

The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846, Courtesy of The Manoogian Collection and The Amon Carter Museum of Art.

Griffey writes that Benton would adopt this technique and others and even went so far as creating miniature clay models of compositions “to establish clear spatial relationships between forms.”

He also points out that both artists sought to spread their work and populist ideas to larger audiences and markets via printmaking.

If you would like a deeper look at Bingham's process, complete with sketches and final artworks, you should check out the companion site to show Navigating The West: George Caleb Bingham and The River on the Amon Carter Museum of Art web site.

More than style or process, perhaps Bingham’s greatest influence on Benton was in artistic purpose. Benton agreed and carried out Bingham’s notion of creating art that was engaged, both socially and politically, with the times they lived in.

Despite living in different times, these two men who strived to define American art were met with similar receptions from the critical community.

In that same article Griffey writes, that “Benton considered Bingham a kindred artistic spirit from the past, one whose art had likewise occasionally rubbed Eastern critics the wrong way.”

In their respective times both men may have been snubbed by the Eastern artistic establishment, but from the modern vantage point we can clearly see that they succeeded in defining a truly American art in their own time and beyond.

Griffey also quotes Benton talking about Bingham and his influence on 20th Century art, who said, “Bingham lived in a day when it was the picture rather than the way it was made which occupied the amateur’s attention. …American painting is again coming back to this simplicity…[It] is rising again as a popular art, as an art that has meaning for Americans.”

If you’re in the Kansas City area any time soon, you owe it to yourself to check out the Benton exhibit, American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, currently showing at The Nelson Atkins Museum through Jan. 3, 2016. It’s a thorough and thoroughly entertaining look at the relationship among Benton’s work, movie making and visual storytelling.  

It’s also a great way to get a first-hand look at Bingham’s influence on Benton’s impressive work.

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 2, 2015 .

An Artist, An Impression, An Inspiration

One of the thrilling aspects of telling the story of George Caleb Bingham’s life and legacy are coming across those events in his life that are easily identifiable as defining moments.

For the storyteller, these defining moments make for great pillars around which to construct the overall story.

Especially if that moment occurs in childhood.

A defining moment occurring at a young age has a quiet power, like a single drop in water sending ripples outward through the rest of a life.

When you’re examining the life of someone as accomplished and influential as Bingham, you become amazed by the impression a single experience can have on one person’s life and the world the rest of us live in.

For a young George Caleb Bingham, the first and perhaps most clearly defining moment in his life was a meeting with an artist. The meeting, though, was not by chance.

In the 1820s, Bingham’s father, Henry, brought  George, then age 9, and his brother Newt, age 5, up to the the second floor above a tavern in the small Missouri town of Franklin where they lived.

The two boys paused before a closed door. Finally the boys’ father opened the door for them, and the boys peered through the doorway, getting a long look into a makeshift artist studio.

An artist's lair, from The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham

In the studio, the itinerant portrait painter Chester Harding was at work on a portrait of American hero Daniel Boone. Harding was working from a sketch he’d made of Boone just a few days before in Warren County, Missouri.

So legendary was Boone and so renown was the artist Harding that Henry Bingham felt compelled to bring his sons to witness the artist at work on his art, the celebrity in their midst.

In this moment, one child chose to hang back, while the other was drawn through the doorway and forever into the world of the artist.

Not only would the studio and the art impress their sights, sounds and smells upon the young George Caleb Bingham, so too would the artist himself. That visit, that moment, led to a mentorship and friendship lasting for years and informing American fine art to this day.

We know this visit to Harding’s improvised lair was a defining moment that rippled throughout Bingham”s life because, by all accounts, this was the first childhood exposure to fine art for the man who would spend his life painting portraits and landscapes.

Two boys exploring, from The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham

A moment. An impression. A stroke left on a canvass that’s as indelible as a mark left on a young boy.

It’s exploring moments like these in Bingham’s life that makes the film rewarding for the filmmakers and viewers alike.

For updates and information about The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham, join our mail list.



Posted on November 25, 2015 .

Why Make a Documentary About George Caleb Bingham?

Every film begins with its creator asking a question:

“Why do this project?”


You had better answer that for yourself, because eventually it’s a question you must answer for everybody else, including investors, partners and the people you want to see the film.  So, why are we doing our documentary, The American Artist: The Life and Times of George Caleb Bingham


...his work, many of them unsigned portraits and landscapes, hang in museums around the world.

...though his life was filled with great personal suffering and loss, his vision for the America as depicted in his paintings was idyllic and serene

...he grew up along the Missouri River when the state was still a frontier and America was still forming. 

...he was a self­-taught artist and ambitious entrepreneur who use his earnings and contacts as a painter of portraits to launch a prolific political and art career.  He built a life amidst death, suffering the loss of his father, his grandfather, his brother, two wives and two children.


...he became friends with many of the influential heads he painted and soon found himself catapulted into the political arena. 

...he clung to his ideal of a unified nation even as war ripped his beloved nation and home state in two. 

...he joined the Union ranks during the Civil War and even served as Missouri’s Treasurer. 

...he lived out his remaining years as a simple, elderly professor of art, shunned for his controversial paintings and politics and little thought of as an artist outside of the borders of his state.

...as we entered the 20th century, The Missouri Painter’s great works were rediscovered and deemed a national treasure.  

...he lived during the Westward Expansion, two Industrial Revolutions, the Civil War and the Restoration that followed.


...through it all Bingham was always more than an observer­­ he was an ambitious, active participant. 


In short, we’re making this documentary because Bingham built a remarkable life and his paintings are lasting visual documents of our country’s great frontier.  The next question you have to answer about a film: “Why should anyone watch it?”  In film, the answer to that question takes the form of a teaser. So we invite you to check out the trailer for The American Artist: The Life and Times of George Caleb Bingham:

To find out more about the documentary and be notified when it premiers in 2016, please join our mail list by clicking here.

Posted on November 18, 2015 .

Wide Awake Films to Produce Bingham Documentary

Wide Awake Films is teaming up with the Friends of Arrow Rock to chronicle the life and times of Missouri native and self-taught painter George Caleb Bingham.

During his 45-year career, Bingham became known throughout the United States as "The Missouri Artist" for his portrait depictions of well-known Missourians of the 19th century. Bingham's  paintings and drawings offer a genuine and first-hand account of an artist who lived and observed daily life in one of the newly settled territories of the West. In his later years, Bingham moved beyond merely recording life and began directly affecting it through numerous appointments in state and local politics. Today, Bingham's realistic paintings continue to allow the public at large to catch a storied glimpse of the 19th century world. 

Production is already underway. We've captured on-camera interviews with art historians and curators across the country, including Betsy Kornhauser of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Melissa Wolfe of Saint Louis Art Museum, Stephanie Fox-Knappe of Kansas City's Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, as well as Missouri historian Dr. Joan Stack. 

Posted on May 26, 2015 .

Amon Carter Museum: First Stop on the Bingham Exhibit Tour

From the beginning of time, water has attracted humans for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s obtained for transportation, industry, eating and drinking, or as a keystone of community development, water in its many forms continues to inspire. The 19th century Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham dedicated a number of his works to the depiction of the life and lore of the rivers and byways of Missouri, following in the tradition of artistic illustrations of water recorded over hundreds of years.

Right now, 16 river paintings and 50 drawings from George Caleb Bingham’s collection are on exhibit in Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas. Bingham’s major river works showcase the role that water played in the 19th century as a means of transportation and trade as well as how the river shaped the lives of those who lived around it including the Osage Indians, French traders and the early settlers of the American West.

The art exhibit will feature interactive elements as well as an opportunity for museum visitors to craft their own Bingham River painting by tracing the artist’s iconic figures onto canvas. Modern context on the influence of water on a community will be showcased in a joint exhibition called Meet Me at the Trinity, a photography presentation by Chicago-based landscape photographer Terry Evans. The photographs depict how the community of Fort Worth interacts with and plays on the Trinity River, an urban stream in Fort Worth. For a sneak preview of the exhibit, see Amon Carter’s video, below:

Posted on May 10, 2015 .