The Lure of Life on the Missouri

Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River

an exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, October 2, 2014–January 18, 2015; the Saint Louis Art Museum, February 22–May 17, 2015; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, June 17–September 20, 2015
Catalog of the exhibition by Nenette Luarca-Shoaf, Claire Barry, Nancy Heugh, Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, Dorothy Mahon, Andrew J. Walker, and Janeen Turk
Amon Carter Museum of American Art/Saint Louis Art Museum, 200 pp., $45.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
George Caleb Bingham: Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, 29 1/4 x 36 1/4 inches, 1845

There is a lovely stylishness and sense of artificiality about the paintings George Caleb Bingham made of fur traders and boatmen on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. In pictures that date mostly from the latter half of the 1840s and seem to take place in the early hours of a summer day, we might see a wizened backwoodsman in a canoe, puffing on his pipe as he paddles by, or Bingham might show stevedores assembled on a barge, wearing jeans and maybe in their bare feet. The atmosphere has a milky-white softness, yet the light is as strong and precise as stage lighting, so that the shadows in the creases of the pants and shirts the men wear are crisply visible from a distance and attractive on their own. The very scenes seem to take place on a stage. We feel the curtain has just gone up, and there before us, on rafts so clean it seems they have been put in the water for the first time, are the cast members.

The spirit of these works, the subject of an exhibition entitled “Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River,” now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is clearly synthetic. We look at the work of an artist for whom balance and order are everything. In the 1847 Raftsmen Playing Cards, one of the show’s highlights, the way the men assembled on deck, in their seated, bending, and standing positions, relate to one another, and the way they relate to the quiet river world their raft is moving through, are so methodically planned out—and satisfyingly in sync—as to make the painting feel like a demonstration of sheer artistic control.

Bingham clearly thought about Raphael. Figures from the Renaissance artist’s paintings and his ideas on how to shape a composition are worked into different pictures by the Missouri-based painter. He was also perhaps aware of Poussin, whose feeling for making every aspect of a scene, starting with the arrangement of the figures, part of a grand yet compact and rock-solid design is even closer to him. What gives Bingham’s pictures their individuality, though, is the evident purity of his quest to create scenes of a classical poise—that, and his doing so with such unlikely material.

Bingham, who died in 1879, at sixty-eight, has for some time been considered one of the notable figures in the second echelon of nineteenth-century American painters. He has never been an exalted artist on the order of Winslow Homer or Thomas Eakins, in part because, like many of the painters active before the Civil War, especially the painters of people, his body of work is not extensive and the pictures of his that still speak to us are small in number. Like many of these…

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