A new exhibit of works by 19th-century artist, George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), opens Oct. 2, 2014, at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, TX. Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River is an art exhibition that features his paintings and sketches of life on the Missouri River during frontier days. Several of these works portray boatmen with weathered faces as they navigate an ever-changing course. The paintings depict the types of riverboats of the early and mid-1800s, and illustrate scenes of pastimes, loneliness, and the wilderness.
Bingham was born in Virginia but his family moved to the Missouri territory in 1819. They settled in the small community of Franklin that was a combination of French, Spanish, and English settlers and Osage Indians. When the American portrait artist, Chester Harding, came to Franklin to finish working on a portrait of Daniel Boone, he stayed at the inn owned by Bingham’s father. As a result, young Bingham was assigned to be Harding’s assistant during his stay. This gave Bingham, who was already showing a talent for drawing, the chance to study Harding’s work.
After Bingham’s father died, the family moved to Arrow Rock, MO, along the Missouri River. He developed his talent as a portrait artist, painting the likenesses of politicians, settlers and boatmen. By the time he was 19, he was earning $20.00 a portrait. He was so prolific as a portrait artist that by the end of his life, he had done approximately 500 portraits.
He is best known though for a series of frontier and river scenes that he started in 1845. His most famous painting, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, was also the first in that series. It shows two men in a canoe in calm water, gazing at invisible onlookers. The older man is rowing while the young man is leaning on his elbows and smiling. A bear cub is sitting in the canoe facing the same direction as the men and tethered so it will not run off. The entire scene is very still. It was painted in a style known as Luminism that showed the effects of light on peaceful landscapes and calm water.
The original name Bingham gave this work, French Trader & Half-Breed Son, indicates there is more to the story than just two fur traders on calm water. Traders and fur trappers often married Native American women and their children were called half-breeds. Anyone who was part Native American faced prejudice. When Bingham sent the painting to the American Art Union for sale, the union renamed it Fur Traders Descending the Missouri to avoid controversy.
This painting, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, will be one of those on display as part of the George Caleb Bingham art exhibition. A total of 16 paintings and 50 drawings will feature the Missouri River and other waterways used to explore the new frontier. Several of these works are on loan from the Saint Louis Art Museum, the co-organizer of the exhibit with the Amon Carter Museum. Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River will be at the Amon Carter from Oct. 2, 2014 – Jan. 18, 2015. It will then travel to the Saint Louis Art Museum for display from Feb. 22 – May 17, 2015, and will be in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from June 15 – Sept. 20, 2015.
By Cynthia Collins