George Caleb Bingham (02:21)
In New York City in 1934, a Metropolitan Museum of Art representative purchased a painting by a forgotten American artist. Bingham’s masterpieces were celebrated during his time.
Migrating West (03:23)
Bingham moved from Virginia to Franklin, Missouri as a child in the 1820s. When his father died of malaria, his mother opened a school for girls. There, Bingham first learned to draw.
Artistic Beginnings (03:33)
Bingham taught himself to draw and paint, as did many American artists. He apprenticed with a cabinet maker and was interested in Biblical morality tales. Inspired by Chester Harding, he left home to become a traveling portrait artist in 1834.
Early Artistic Career (03:13)
Bingham suffered smallpox, which left him permanently bald. He married Elizabeth Hutchinson in 1836 and settled in Arrow Rock. Success as a portrait painter grew with James Rawlins' support; he became known as the Missouri Artist.
Portraying the River Country (03:03)
In painting his wife and son, Bingham ventured beyond traditional portraiture. He soon dedicated his career to capturing frontier life along the Missouri.
"Fur Traders Descending the Missouri" (04:13)
Bingham sketched people in his community, compiling an image library of his paintings. The first of his River Series is a modern composition. Analysis using infrared reflectography reveals original details and two separate painting techniques.
"The Jolly Flatboatmen" (03:07)
The American Art Union purchased "Fur Traders Descending the Missouri" and "The Jolly Flatboatmen," which symbolized the opening of America through frontier trade. Both were engraved and distributed among 10,000 members. His images of the common man promoted optimism and pride.
Political Divide (03:22)
During the 1840s, conservative Democrats controlled Missouri; Bingham joined the progressive Whigs who promoted river commerce. In 1846, he ran for state legislature and won in a close race, which his opponent revoked.
Election Series (05:26)
After Bingham's wife and son died, he abandoned politics and created a set of paintings conveying the boisterous democratic process in the 1840s. His intentions are debated, but his inclusion of African-American figures comments on social and political tensions.
Civil War (03:33)
Bingham moved his family to Europe to study the masters. Upon returning, the Kansas-Missouri border conflict over slavery was escalating. Bingham supported the Union but criticized Kansas Jayhawkers for raiding Missouri farms.
Kansas City Jail Collapse (03:58)
Missouri guerrilla groups formed in response to Kansas Jayhawkers. Union commanders arrested women for providing food and shelter and held them in a building belonging to Bingham—without his knowledge. It collapsed, killing relatives of guerrillas and escalating the conflict.
Lawrence Massacre and Aftermath (03:17)
After the Kansas City jail collapse, Missouri guerrillas attacked civilians in Kansas. The Union Army evacuated four Missouri border counties to deprive guerrillas of hideouts. Jayhawkers displaced 30,000 women and children, and burned their homes.
"Order No. 11" (04:06)
In response to forced Missouri evacuations, Bingham created a controversial painting criticizing martial law and reflecting his internal conflict as a Missourian and Union sympathizer. Viewers saw the work as Southern propaganda and even treasonous; his reputation was damaged.
Bingham's Legacy (04:57)
Bingham died in 1879 at age 68. His paintings were auctioned and he became obscure until his work was rediscovered fifty years later. Art historians discuss his contribution to American art and the national identity.
Credits: The American Artist (05:39)
Credits: The American Artist
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