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"George Caleb Bingham & The River"

Work of 19th century Missouri artist on view at Saint Louis Art Museum

George Caleb Bingham, American, 1811-1879; Self Portrait, 1834-35; oil on canvas; 28 3/8 x 22 11/16 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Eliza McMillanTrust 57:1934 (click for larger version)
February 25, 2015
Now playing: George Caleb Bingham | Cinema on the River.

Lights, camera, action. George Caleb Bingham's 19th-century film is now showing at the Saint Louis Art Museum. Just kidding, of course. But there are parallels to filmmaking here. If Oscars were ever to be given for museum presentations, Bingham gets it this year for best in lighting, perspective and narrative.

Missouri's most famous artist knew his audience and hit on a compelling log line – there is a classic beauty, exuberance and dignity in the lives of river men on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Yet he wanted his work to spread beyond Missouri – to Philadelphia, New York and even internationally – so Bingham's titles typically describe actions depicted, rather than identify specific locales or shoreline details.

Bingham favored the dramatic spotlight effect of long shadows at the end of the work day or the tranquility of misty fog. Rich under-painting glows through his surfaces and adds dramatic lighting and atmosphere, focusing the viewer's eye where the artist chooses.

Self-taught from art instruction manuals and his study of classic works, Bingham freely borrows classic poses – and reuses his favorites repeatedly – giving his actors unexpected dignity in the rough and tumble world of river men. Sketched from studio models, and then transposed onto his canvas/stage of the wood flatboat, Bingham's actors bring the strength of classicism to the labors of daily life.

George Caleb Bingham, American, 1811-1879; Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, 1845; oil on canvas; 29 1/4 x 36 1/4 inches; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Morris K. Jesup Fund, 1933 (33.61); Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art (click for larger version)
Again, drawing upon his self-study and observation of the classics, Bingham employs a strong triangular or pyramidal perspective in most works, adding order to what might be assumed a necessarily disordered narrative of life on the river. Copying basic compositions from old prints allowed the artist/director to elevate his scene and idealize his characters, while his symmetry imparts compelling nobility and tranquility to the works.

Like a director carefully blocking his actors, the artist leads the viewer in and around his settings. He gives his actors close-ups that engage the audience, while his dramatic backdrop scenery provides additional context and narrative, imparting a sense of place without being identifiable. This is Everyman and Everyplace. It can feed international interest in America's westward expansion and also can speak a universal language of river life in London, Paris, anywhere.

In "Raftsmen Playing Cards," 1847, men of different ages interact with each other as they turn to leisure after a long day of work. Rather than display the expected behaviors of men who tell tall tales, gamble, carouse and fight their way down the river, these raftsmen play characters who pursue their own interests, in a quiet interval, while still on guard for the river's snags and sandbars.

Bingham's atmospheric "Fur Traders Descending the Missouri," 1845, creates an eloquent picture of surface tranquility, on a river of immense power and force. Emerging from background mist, a white man and his half-Indian son present full-face gazes, as if to question whether the audience will interrupt their peaceful moment. The captured bear cub suggests a wildness that is at least temporarily harnessed, while the horizontal composition reinforces the peaceful serenity.

American, 1811-1879; Jolly Flatboatmen in Port, 1857; oil on canvas; 47 1/4 x 69 5/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase 123:1944 (click for larger version)
Bingham's culmination of "lights, camera, action" comes through in "Jolly Flatboatmen in Port," 1857, a Saint Louis Art Museum signature piece. The scene is an urban port, a waterfront gathering place. Yet it is generalized, with no architectural landmarks. The warmth of a setting sun, the immediacy of actors' downstage placement and their exuberant revelry convey an engaged group who have endured much and are eager to celebrate.

Painted at the time of Dred Scott, just before the Civil War, Bingham's rare placement of a black man within this activity suggests questions of racial tension and inclusion. It is a mark of the artist's universality that his challenge to social norms, class distinctions and stereotyping are seamlessly integrated into such pleasurable works. Perhaps, in addition to his remarkable technique and capture of a particular lifestyle, it may be Bingham's subtle social commentary that is so compelling and speaks so eloquently today.

Exhibition Events

"Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham & the River" is accompanied by two additional shows: "Scenic Wonder: An Early American Journey Down the Hudson River" and "Thomas Cole's Voyage of Life." A free app for a self-guided multimedia tour is available at slam.org/Bingham.

Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham & The River is on display

through May 17 at the Saint Louis Art Museum. For more information, visit www.slam.org/bingham.

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