George Caleb Bingham - The Artist
His childhood was spent on the American frontier along the Missouri River. A self-taught painter, his natural talent, relentless ambition, and strategic friendships propelled him into the world of politics and popular opinion. He was a successful artist, public figure, and family man, but his home, family, career, and life’s work were all but lost as war split his world in two.
A century after his death, George Caleb Bingham’s canon of works was not only rediscovered, but celebrated as a national treasure. His paintings, his politics and his life are a testament to his perseverance, ingenuity, and unwavering determination. Through his eyes, he captured an America long since forgotten.
Capturing an Era - Bingham's World
America - Before the Civil War
America as depicted in Bingham's paintings was idyllic and serene, though life was far from that world captured under his brush. He captured a population thrilled with new possibilities for greater prosperity and empowerment.
But beneath that hope and optimism for a future of limitless potential was the growing schism over slavery, equality and the meaning of what it was to be American. The mad dash for new territory in the 1840s would swiftly yield to disunion in the 1850s - first on the border of Kansas and MIssouri, and then, by 1861, nationwide.
A Changing Landscape
When George Caleb Bingham arrived in Missouri as a boy, it was the frontier of a nation, still so new that there were many alive who could recall a time before the United States even existed.
As the country heaved and expanded, the rivers were its lifeblood, a conduit for people and goods moving ever westward. The Missouri River carried upon its waters the hopes and dreams of some, the worst nightmares of others. It brought life and it took it. It claimed many of those Bingham loved most, yet became his most reliable muse. In his paintings, the river was a symbol for the change that was coming to the frontier, an exemplar of what was possible.
George Caleb Bingham's paintings captured the optimism of a people energized by the realization that they could shape their own destinies, forge their own paths, and find their own fortunes.
Bingham Rediscovered - A Lasting Legacy
In his time, Bingham was a respected portrait painter, but lasting fame proved elusive. His reputation was forever damaged by his choice to make a courageous stand following the Civil War. Upon his death, his legacy was scattered, his work written off as quaint, and nearly forgotten entirely.
But then a new generation of artists championed his work. To regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, Bingham was one of them, existing even before their movement had a name.
Now Bingham is recognized as one of the key American painters of the 19th century, a model for American artists and movements to come, and one of the first to capture the quintessential American experience.