Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River at the Metropolitan Museum
George Caleb Bingham — The first major American artist known to be based in the west of the Mississippi River, George Caleb Bingham painted many compelling true-to-life paintings depicting the frontier life along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
His works languished in obscurity until the 1930’s. Since their discovery, Bingham’s stature as an artist has continued to soar and he is today considered one of the greatest American artists of the 19th century.
The exhibition titled “Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River,” which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on June 1, 2015, is the first major exhibition in more than a quarter of a century to showcase Bingham’s works.
People can view 16 of his most famous paintings at the Met for the first time! The Met Museum exhibition chronicles the transformation of the American Wild West as seen through the artist’s eyes.
The paintings include more than 40 of Bingham’s masterful preparatory drawings depicting life on the inland rivers, such a fur traders transporting their merchandise by boat and boatmen taking their passengers across the river. Included are Bingham’s most famous paintings, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. Painted in 1845, it is considered to be his masterpiece. This and other paintings give a rare insight into the life of the pioneers who opened up the West.
George Caleb Bingham was born on March 20, 1811, in Virginia. When he was 8 years old, his family moved to the newly opened Missouri Territory, which had not yet become a state at the time. Until the middle of the century, Missouri remained at the front-line of the American frontier – a departure point for everyone heading west, including explorers, adventurers and settlers.
Growing up in the frontier, Bingham had to teach himself to draw through drawing manuals. Beginning his career as an itinerant portrait painter, he travelled to counties along the Missouri River, drawing portraits of middle class people. He made two great rivers, the Mississippi and Missouri, the focus of his work, because of the pivotal role they played in the economic and cultural life of the region.
During his travels along the rivers, Bingham identified and codified a wide variety of occupations in the frontiers and brought them to national attention through his paintings. These included boatmen, raft men, dock-hand, fur trader, fiddler, card player and traveler. Through his paintings, he vividly brought the frontier life to the drawing rooms of the urban east.
The main attraction of the exhibition is, of course, the Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, which powerfully depicts the homeward journey of a French trapper as he slowly paddles his canoe downstream, with a half-Native American boy leaning on the cargo and a bear cub leashed to the bow. The painting is a fine example of the artist’s brilliant use of composition elements to create a portrait of startling stillness.
Another highlight of the exhibition is The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846), which depicts a group of boatmen enjoying themselves by singing, playing music and dancing aboard a flatboat. It’s a beautiful example of the artist’s brilliant use of colors, lights and shades to create an image of remarkable clarity and life-likeness.
George Caleb Bingham died on July 7, 1879. But his legacy continues to live in his brilliant paintings that show the life on the frontier with unusual clarity. For anyone who is interested in the history of the American frontier, the exhibition is a treasure-trove of information. The exhibition will be on display until September 20, 2015.
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