For My Daily Art Display today I cross the Atlantic and return to the nineteenth century in order to discover the art of George Caleb Bingham. Bingham was born in 1811 in Augusta County Virginia. He was the second of seven children to Mary and Henry Bingham and his early life should have been a life of plenty as his grandfather on his mother’s side passed on to his mother and father the family mill and a vast tract of land along with a number of slaves and servants. However when Caleb was seven years old, an unwise decision to stand surety for a friend’s debt by his father lost the family everything. It was time to move on and the family went West in search of their fortune.
The family settled in Missouri in the small town of Franklin in Howard County, a few miles north of the great Missouri River, and eventually Caleb’s father became a county judge. Sadly, when Caleb was only twelve, his thirty-eight year old father contracted malaria and died. The family moved to a farm just outside the town. Caleb spent much of his leisure time down by the river and many of his paintings he did as an adult featured this magnificent waterway. Caleb became an apprentice to a cabinet maker when he was sixteen years old and he was put to work painting signs. A few years earlier Caleb Bingham had met Chester Harding the portrait painter who had passed through Howard County looking for work. The artist had sparked an interest in art with Caleb, so much so that the teenager started to paint portraits of the local people which he sold for twenty dollars.
Bingham married Sarah Hutchinson in 1836 and the couple moved to the city St Louis where he was able to expand his artistic career and soon made a name for himself as a portrait painter. He travelled to Philadelphia where he spent some time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before moving to Washington. He returned back to his Missouri home in 1844 and started painting river scenes, one of which is my featured painting today. As far as his paintings are concerned, it is reckoned that the period between 1845 and 1855 he produced his greatest works. In 1848 his wife died and his mother moved in with him to look after his children. She too died three years later. In 1856 Caleb made a trip to Europe with his second wife Eliza Thomas. He visited Paris and was able to fulfil one of his ambitions which was to study the works of the Great Masters at the Louvre. They moved on to Germany where the family lived in an artists’ colony and he enrolled at the Dusseldorf School of painting where he studied historical painting.
Eventually he and his family returned to America and he continued his lucrative career as a portraitist. He also fulfilled another of his ambitions; he entered politics and held positions in the state legislature of Missouri and later became president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners and was appointed their first chief of police. His second wife died in an asylum in 1876 and soon after he married for a third time. He became the first Professor of Art at the University of Missouri but he died in 1879, early into this tenure.
The painting I am featuring today in My Daily Art Display is entitled Fur Traders descending the Missouri which he completed in 1845. This was one of his genre paintings of everyday life on the Missouri River. He loved to depict the river boatmen and fur traders whose livelihood was tied up with this vast waterway. In some ways Bingham’s painting was out of date and it really was just his nostalic look back on the past as by 1845 when he completed this work, the world of the lone hunters and trappers bringing their pelts to trading posts by canoe was over, superseded by the big companies which shipped their commodities up and down the river by steamer and barge. The painting was originally titled French Trader, Half Breed Son. It was quite common in those days for fur traders to take up with Native American women. However when first exhibited the American Art Union considered the title to be, what we would now term, “not politically correct” and so the Art Union renamed it, hence its present title. In front of us we see an old French fur trader, wearing his liberty hat along with his son with their cargo, riding a dugout canoe along the shimmering Missouri River. In the centre of the canoe is their cargo of furs atop of which is a dead duck which will provide supper for the duo. In the prow of the craft is a tethered animal. I say “animal” for to me it looks like a cat but doing some research into the painting I believe it is supposed to be a small bear cub!
The light in the painting adds a haunting quality to the work and this is where I give you another “-ism” to think about – Luminism and the American Luminists. The term luminism came into being in the mid-twentieth century when art historians used the term to describe a 19th-century American painting style that arose as a derivative of the Hudson River School, examples of which I featured on Feb 4th and Feb 9th. Luminism was a retrospective name given by art historians and was not a term used by the luminist artist themselves nor did they align themselves with the Hudson River School of painters. The landscapes of Luminists could be characterised by the use of clear and cool colours. It was hard to detect brushstrokes in paintings done by the luminists. These artists liked to paint very large works emphasising nature’s grand scale that emphasized tranquillity, reflective water and soft hazy skies.
Today’s featured painting was looked upon as Caleb Bingham’s most famous, evoking an era in America’s early history. There is no question that the painting today is a prime example of luminism. I am amazed by the aura of serenity and stillness I detect in this painting. The composition is well balanced. There is no hint of any motion and yet we know the small craft is carrying its passengers downstream. Caleb Bingham will have seen such sights many times over when he lived near the banks of the Missouri. It was thanks to the paintings of the likes of Bingham that folk back in the East learnt about the pioneering push to the West as although cameras had been invented before the time of this painting, photographs were expensive to produce and so for the ordinary people works of art were their window to the West.
5 thoughts on “Fur Traders descending the Missouri by George Caleb Bingham”
This painting hangs in the Detroit Institute of Arts and as a young music student at Wayne State University, I would often travel across Woodward Avenue in my spare time to look at many of the wonderful paintings in the collection and this one always stood out. The curators at the DIA refer to the small animal as a wolverine. To my wild animal inclined eye, I would also guess a wolverine, but perhaps a pup, certainly not a full grown,
Is a cat.
It’s a stunning, luminous work. It makes me think of Martin Chuzzelwit, and the hardscrabble existence, camaraderie and mutual suspicions on the developing frontier. I think both the painting and Dicken’s book are set in the same period (1830s?). As to the animal; Wolverines have small rounded ears and a distinctive posture unlike this animal – so do bears. Whatever Bingham intended the silhouetted animal to represent, what he painted is unmistakably a cat. Perhaps his memory of Wolverine appearance was foggy and he used a cat as a model.
First, the father’s headgear is not a “liberty hat”, which is nothing a Canadian French voyageur would have worn, but is instead the familiar Quebec knitted “toque” or “tuque” commonly worn by voyageurs. Second, the animal is neither a cat, nor a bear, nor a wolverine, but is instead a black fox. While hard to see in reproductions, the animal’s face has a long, narrow muzzle, and it is sitting with its tongue extended as foxes (along with their dog and wolf cousins) commonly do. Black foxes were not only the most valuable furs at the time, but also regarded by Native Americans as spiritually significant creatures.