Oil, Canvas, Public: George Caleb Bingham

The Jolly Flatboatmen, George Caleb Bingham

Friends, the last few weeks have been packed with much work and projects, little of which has immediately manifested itself on the AOTR site. Over the next few weeks these projects will be visible — and will hopefully help to excuse what’s been a bit of silent stretch.

One of the joys of this busy series of weeks has been the opportunity to lead a workshop at the St. Louis Art Museum on the subject of rural-urban exchange, with landscape as an organizing lens for the conversation. These ideas were anchored in SLAM’s excellent Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet exhibit and then traveled to investigate the work of their American contemporaries, concluding with the current work of Kara Walker. Anything But Civil: Kara Walker’s Vision of the Old South is one of the most powerful exhibitions I’ve encountered in a long time; if folks haven’t seen her work yet, here’s a place to start.

Over the next few weeks I am looking to share more of my thoughts on these artists. Though, at first, their work may seems unlikely companions, they combine to tell a complicated story about modern life, diaspora, nostalgia, and the ways in which people, landscapes, and cultures are either celebrated or submerged by a nation’s self-image.

With those ideas as a guide, I’d like to share the work of George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879). Coming from the Impressionist moment in France, I was floored by the paintings of Bingham and fellow Missourian Henry Lewis. This is due in part to their considerations of Mississippi River culture (the subject of some projects I’ll be sharing soon), but also due to the ways in which, in his Election Series, Bingham represents rural civic life.

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The County Election, George Caleb Bingham

There’s far more to say, but I’ll start here: in Bingham’s election and river subjects, I saw a kind of social practice brought to life through an oil painting, in what Thomas Hart Benton calls below an echo of the High Renaissance, albeit one that does not entirely gloss over issues of class and race. Rural art projects are often split between the socially-minded and the aesthetic, with even participatory art projects abstaining from the more traditional forms of art practice visible in Bingham’s canvases. Standing in front of The County Election or Jolly Boatmen in Port, I wondered why I haven’t seen contemporary visual artists represent social or civic practice in Bingham’s method — i.e., what would such a luminous technique present if it was considering a story circle at Appalshop, an arts and entrepreneurship incubator at The Coleman Center, or a scene from the peach harvest at Masumoto Family Farm.

Admittedly, this idea comes out of left field. But the ways in which I am both attracted to, and made uncomfortable by, these images keeps me thinking about the question — as does this excerpt from Thomas Hart Benton’s preface to George Caleb Bingham of Missouri, a book by Albert Christ-Janer published in 1940:

Bingham lived in a day when it was the picture rather than the way it was made which occupied the amateur’s attention. No elaborate pseudo-technical verbiage was erected between his pictures and his audience. If he painted a tree, it was a tree and not a sign pointing to some obscure world of special values with which this cult of that was trying to prove its superior sensibility. Painting was plainer and more matter of fact in Bingham’s days. There were no painters’ painters nor was one supposed to need some special training or some occult capacity to determine whether or not one liked an artist’s work. A picture was not directed to coteries of precious experts but to ordinary people who might buy it and put it in their homes. This was healthy and as it should be and, though Bingham lived in a world which was still close to wilderness and faced hard times now and then, he had a public and was a successful artist. He painted for a living world and painted that that world could understand — its own life.

American painting is again coming back to this simplicity. Somehow over the heads of the experts and indifferent to its clash with the imported formulas of the critically élite, American painting is rising again as a popular art, as an art that has meaning for Americans. It is creating a new atmosphere and a growing public, seeing its escape from the hot-houses of borrowed cultivation, is watching it with interest. The daily press and the magazines applaud it and argue about it in terms that plain people can understand. Studies of our American artistic past are being made. Adventurous-minded individuals and even the Federal government have delved into our folk art and found values where were not even suspected a few years ago.

The Regionalist movements of late years, emotional out-croppings of the South and the Middlewest but bolstered, nevertheless, by new findings in anthropology and archaeology, have tended to re-define culture. The basic nature of a true culture as the outgrowth of the pressures of a locality is recognized, and more and more intelligent Americans are questioning the validity of cultural pretensions which lean on borrowed artifacts and conceptions. In this new psychological atmosphere, this study of George Caleb Bingham fits readily. Here is an artist who, technically allied to the High Renaissance, was able like his great contemporary, Daumier, similarly allied, to direct his procedures to the life he knew. Instead of fitting life to his processes, he fitted these to his life and made thereby a unique and original series of forms.

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Jolly Flatboatmen in Port, George Caleb Bingham