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Bingham’s rivers connect nature and politics, local and national audiences

George Caleb Bingham painted 'The Jolly Flatboatmen' in 1846. The oil-on-canvas painting is part of the St. Louis Art Museum's Bingham exhibit.
Courtesy of the St. Louis Art Museum
George Caleb Bingham painted 'The Jolly Flatboatmen' in 1846. The oil-on-canvas painting is part of the St. Louis Art Museum's Bingham exhibit.

A new exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum tackles the personal interests of a Missouri painter known for his depictions of 19th century elections and politics.

“They are the most spectacular paintings he did,” said Melissa Wolfe, the new curator of American art at the museum.

Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River,” opens Sunday and highlights the painter’s commitment to capturing river scenes from his home state of Missouri. Early in his career, Bingham developed a name for himself through portraits of Western gentry. He later turned that technique to portrayals of daily life around the rivers, lending dignity to dock workers and boatmen. According to Wolfe, Bingham’s skill was bolstered by the painter’s first-hand knowledge of the subject matter.

“The way that light goes through the moisture coming off the river and the way it disperses through clouds, I mean, that’s Bingham knowing what it’s like to sit on the river in the morning,” said Wolfe.

Bingham submitted his river paintings to a subscription service that produced prints of artists’ work and mailed the reproductions to patrons throughout the country. According to Assistant Curator of American Art Janeen Turk, these prints were purchased for $5 and exponentially increased the painter’s audience. Throughout the exhibit, viewers will see the stages of Bingham’s process while creating the river images: his sketching, application of sketches to canvas and eventual application of paint to canvas.

Assistant Curator of American Art Janeen Turk (Left), and Curator of American Art Melissa Wolf (Right)
Credit Alex Heuer | St. Louis Public Radio
Assistant Curator of American Art Janeen Turk, left, and Curator of American Art Melissa Wolfe.

As Bingham’s work grew in prominence, he turned to another interest — American politics. Bingham strongly supported the democratic process and frequently depicted the conflict of debates and election scenes.He notably painted scenes of founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams. The painter’s political concerns even infiltrated his seemingly idyllic river scenes.

“There’s all sort of little symbols and inside stories and allusions to different political debates and campaigns and elections,” said Wolfe, an expert in 19th century painting. 

Two seemingly innocuous parts of Bingham’s rivers scenes, snags and sawyers, actually represent the Whig Party’s push for federal money to clean the waterways.

Just as Bingham used rivers scenes to straddle personal and political interests, he used the waterways to bridge the gap between local and national audiences. During Bingham’s time, rivers were central to American daily life on both national and local levels.

“The rivers were so central to any kind of communication and transportation and a sense of connecting one part of this massive country, now after the Louisiana Purchase, to the other part of it,” said Wolfe.

To this end, the painter eliminated some particulars that would have identified his river paintings as exact locations and possibly alienated a national audience. He didn’t paint literal representations, he used locales as inspiration for an expanded depiction of river life.

“If you make it broader so someone in New York says. 'Oh, I’ve been on a river like that, I get that,’ then you’ve brought everyone into your story,” Wolfe said.

Bingham’s balance between personal and political interests and local and national appeal contributes to the painter’s place in the artistic cannon.

“He’s an artist who really understood his world and was painting it.”

Related Event

“Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River”

“Cityscape” is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.