George Caleb Bingham’s genre scenes of the Western frontier are among the most familiar images in American art. A native son of Missouri, Bingham chronicled life along the rivers and in the towns of America’s heartland. A mostly unfamiliar commodity through the early twentieth century, by the 1930s Bingham was essentially “rediscovered” when The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, acquired his iconic Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845) in 1933. With interest in the artist thus rekindled, Bingham has ascended the ranks to become regarded today as one of America’s greatest genre painters. It is not a stretch to say that Bingham’s river paintings are as vital to our conception of frontier life as are the writings of another famous Missourian, Mark Twain.
Bingham was born on his family’s tobacco plantation in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which lie near Charlottesville, Virginia. In 1819, his family moved to Franklin, a small town in the Missouri territory, where Bingham’s father, Henry, opened a tavern. The elder Bingham eventually became involved in local politics, serving as a judge in both county court and circuit court. Henry Bingham died in 1823, when George was twelve years old, which forced him to labor on the family farm. By 1828 he was apprenticed to an Arrow Rock, Missouri, cabinetmaker, but sometime between then and 1835 Bingham decided to pursue a career as an artist, and took up portrait painting.
In his first years as a professional, Bingham’s skills were essentially self-taught. But, intent on improving, in 1838 he went to Philadelphia, where he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His study there was crucial to the softening of his style, which, because of his provincial beginnings, was more allied to the hard-edged aspect of the limner tradition. Just as important as his studies, however, was his exposure to works by leading American artists, including Thomas Sully, Samuel F. B. Morse, and others whose styles rubbed off on the eager and impressionable young artist. In 1840, confident in his newly refined style, Bingham moved to Washington, D.C., where he hoped to make a living painting portraits of political figures, but he was scarcely able to earn enough to support his family, so he returned to Missouri in 1844.
Bingham’s return to his homeland spurred a new and most significant development in his career. Frustrated with the trials of being a mere portraitist, Bingham turned to painting scenes of everyday life on the river, earning Bingham the distinction of being the first American genre painter to have been raised in the West. Soon after his return, he executed three of his most famous works: the aforementioned Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, Boatmen on the Missouri (1846, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), and The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), which was purchased by the American Art-Union in 1847 and widely distributed as an engraving, bringing Bingham great fame.
As the principal visual recorder of this most American of traditions, Bingham’s fame grew quickly. During this same period, he also embarked on an equally important series of political pictures. He regularly sent his works to New York for exhibitions at the National Academy of Design and the American Art-Union, and many of his works were engraved in Philadelphia, where he moved in 1852. He left for Europe in 1856, traveling to Düsseldorf to study at its art academy. Bingham’s work began to take on more conventional academic traits, and when he returned to America he abandoned his genre scenes and returned almost exclusively to portrait painting. Always interested in politics, Bingham served as the treasurer of the state of Missouri during the Civil War, and he held a number of other political offices. Two years before his death, Bingham was elected professor of art at the University of Missouri, Columbia.