George Caleb Bingham, a mid-19th-century, self-taught American artist, was also a state senator from the new state of Missouri. His wonderful “Jolly Flatboatman” can be read as a political document. Bingham advocated for Congressional funding to develop the Mississippi River. See, the river was wild, and in order to access all those western resources, the river needed to be ‘improved’. Man over Nature, and all that.
So here we see a placid, wide Mississippi River and a boat sailing easily into a future full of riches in them thar hills. These men don’t have to work hard, as if the West wasn’t quite as dangerous as Eastern investors feared. Everyone could dance for joy. That is, if the river was cleared and re-routed as needed.
What the current show at the Met also shows is the development of an artist. His early awkward scenes, like this one, show his lack of training. Here, we see its monstrous Hudson-River-School-inspired plants and trees dominating the scene all out of proportion and the blatant use of red to draw our eye to…a piece of laundry. Hmmm.
But in that same year of 1845, Bingham begins his remarkable series of Mississippi and Missouri River scenes and becomes an art star in the Art Union, putting reproduction prints in the hands of the middle class everywhere.
The exhibit also demonstrates his method, which starts with intricate drawings until he gets the face and pose just right. Then he lines up the drawing and his canvas to accomplish his planned composition and basically retraces his drawing until it transfers to the canvas. At least, that’s the sense I could make of the description on the wall label.
He also could make a drawing on one side of a thin page (as above), put it by a window, and in its light, trace the reverse, to voila, reuse the pose in another work.
I was mesmerized by the beauty of these drawings, so much more subtle and sophisticated than his paintings full of types. The curators explain this, too. The Bingham brand sold better, especially in the eastern U.S. and Europe, with these rougher types.
He reused favorite characters and compositions again and again. Like Gilbert Stuart and his portrait of George Washington, these were Bingham’s dollar bills.
My favorite painting in the show is just such a recycled character, “Mississippi Boatman” from 1850. Note the much better use of attention-grabbing red, now drawing our eye to this riverman’s grizzled features. I’d love to break bread with this man, since he clearly has seen a thing or two.
Taxpayer dollars rescued (as in purchased) the discovered drawings, now lent to this exhibit by “The People of Missouri.” Bingham, who served these same people, would surely approve.