Remembering artist George Caleb Bingham at the St. Louis Art Museum

Frieda Curtis | Contributing Writer

For generations, art has played an important role in the expression of social and political reactions, condemnations, fears and hopes. We might think of Spanish artists such as Francisco Goya and Pablo Picasso, American artists Ben Shahn and Aaron Douglas, Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, or German expressionist Max Beckmann, among many others. Art has the power of introspection but also the powers of direct engagement and calling to action.

The work of famed Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) can also be included in this list. A new documentary film, “The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham,” screened at the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) on Sunday, Nov. 6. The film tells the story of Bingham’s artistic and political life, introducing his relatively unknown work to the general public and elevating him to the level of American classics such as Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Hart Benton.

Beginning his career as a cabinet maker, Bingham was inspired by traveling portrait painter Chester Harding to turn his painting hobby into a career. After painting portraits for some time, Bingham began to paint and tell the stories of his everyday life. His hometown of Arrow Rock, Mo., on the banks of the Missouri River, became his inspiration, and his vision of the western frontier depicted an America that few had really seen.

Bingham also began to paint political banners for the Whig Party, which positioned him openly against the majority Democratic Party. However, his interest in politics did not end there. In 1846, he ran for state legislature, narrowly winning the election, but his opponent successfully contested the outcome. Four years later, he tried again and won.

Between 1852 and 1855, Bingham created what is now known as the “Election Series.” This series, which includes “Stump Speaking” (1853-4), “The County Election” (1852) and “The Verdict of the People” (1854)—all on view in the newly opened American art galleries at SLAM—can be read both as a criticism of the election process, but also as a celebration of its uniquely American qualities. The images are all local scenes, but they are imbued with a national significance. There is a great variety of people in the images, even though only white males had the right to vote at the time. Elements of humor, drinking and lightheartedness contrast sharply with the serious and thoughtful voters engaged in heated disagreements.

Bingham returned from a trip to Europe to a country divided on the issue of slavery. He was a Union supporter but was outraged by Union General Thomas Ewing Jr.’s 1863 order that forced residents in western Missouri to move out of the area, leading to destruction and looting by Union soldiers. He expressed his anger in “Order No. 11” (1865-8), a painting he tirelessly promoted even in the face of resistance. Accused of being a Southern sympathizer because of the painting, Bingham found his career essentially ruined. After his death in 1879, his work was scattered and his name disappeared into obscurity, until he was rediscovered in the 1930s.

The film was produced by Friends of Arrow Rock and made by Wide Awake Films. Sandy Selby, executive director of Friends of Arrow Rock, a no-profit that aims to preserve and share the history of Arrow Rock, introduced the documentary at SLAM. She said that this is their most ambitious undertaking and called the film “first-rate.”

The documentary combines dramatic reenactments and narration, interviews with art historians from major museums and detailed close-ups of the paintings to bring the story to life within a historical and artistic context.

What the film lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in ambition and reach to the general public. Bingham, though now known in the art world as one of the leading American artists of the 19th century, is still an elusive figure to many. The filmmakers hope this one-hour documentary will soon screen on PBS to reach those who are interested but not well-versed, in this history.

Just as Bingham’s local scenes resonated within a national context, the criticisms, fears and hopes that he shared in his paintings are still relevant today, especially in light of recent political events. If we take anything from Bingham’s work, let it be this: Be aware, don’t be complacent and make your voice heard, even in the face of resistance.

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