Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River
How do you imagine the historic West? If you’re an American of a certain age, your answer probably starts with the Hollywood Western: sheriffs and saloons, saddles and stagecoaches, and—of course—cowboys and Indians. But before the age of film, the most influential visual guide to the West was Missouri’s George Caleb Bingham. Bingham’s drawings, prints and paintings circulated across the East as Americans moved West, leaving an indelible mark on the way we picture the region and ourselves.
Bingham’s best-known work focused on the Mississippi River, the West’s key vehicle of folklore as well as commerce in the nineteenth century. Before Mark Twain’s Huck and Jim there were Bingham’s Jolly Flatboatmen, making merry as they meandered down the Mississippi. A politician as well as a painter, Bingham also used his art to plead for federal aid for so-called “internal improvements” in public infrastructure. Behind his sympathetically drawn human figures stood decaying docks and abandoned steamboats, stark reminders of the problems of the West.
Indeed, we owe the preservation of Bingham’s rich visual record to a characteristically Western blend of public activism and private largesse. Deeded to a local library that had fallen on hard times, many of Bingham’s most important drawings were slated for auction in the 1970s. But Missouri Governor Christopher “Kit” Bond came to the rescue, organizing a statewide campaign that raised nearly $2 million in donations to purchase the drawings. They are now owned by a trust for the benefit of “The People of Missouri,” which is precisely how George Caleb Bingham would have wanted it. “The absence of art in any nation will ever be a mark of its ignorance and degradation,” Bingham wrote in 1879, just before he died. “It is indeed the chief agent securing national immortality.”
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