George Caleb Bingham, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845), oil on canvas, 29″ x 36-1/2″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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“Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River” is an exemplary feat of scholarly and curatorial acumen. Both the exhibition and accompanying catalogue bring historical and artistic breadth to a defining motif found in one artist’s oeuvre: riverboat denizens on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. That the American painter George Caleb Bingham (1811–79) was not a great artist shouldn’t detract from the efforts of The Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth and the Saint Louis Art Museum, the show’s organizers. Nor should kudos be withheld from Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, the Met’s curator of American painting and sculpture, and the assistant research curator Stephanie L. Herdrich. They’ve installed “Navigating the West” with a steady eye for the links between Bingham’s drawings and paintings. Don’t worry: this isn’t a “specialists only” endeavor. The most heartening thing about the show is its accessibility. In terms of what it has to tell us about the quiddities of style, “Navigating the West” is, in the best sense of the phrase, user-friendly.
It doesn’t hurt that the centerpiece is Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845), a staple of the Met’s collection and the exhibition’s sine qua non. Bingham’s masterpiece beggars literary explication—as does any picture worth its salt. A grizzled older man, smoking a corncob pipe, sits in an impossibly slim boat; though his hands have placed an oar in the water, there is no sense of propulsion. To his right is a dark-haired boy, possibly Native American, casually leaning against a cargo box. Chained to the bow is a small mammal—a bear, we are told, but the physiognomy remains indeterminate. Each figure meets our gaze in a distinctive manner: the man, frank but cautious; the boy, engaging and open; the bear, solicitous. A riverbank suffused in an all-but-obliterating light serves as the backdrop. A sleek run of silvery-pink clouds hovers over the scene, the lone portion of the canvas evincing movement. The river is crystalline. A preternatural quietude dominates. Fur Traders Descending the Missouri is an iconic image gathered from the ether.
George Caleb Bingham, Fur trader, for Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845) and the second later version, Trappers’ Return (1851), brush, black ink and wash over pencil on off-white wove paper, 11-1/2″ x 9-1/2″; courtesy The People of Missouri, acquired through the generosity of Allen P. and Josephine B. Green Foundation
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It wasn’t, of course. Not a little forethought went into composing the picture, and myriad alterations occurred during the course of painting. As “Navigating the West” makes plain, Bingham was a fastidious craftsman. He executed numerous studies in graphite and ink before putting brush to canvas. Though the drawings were transferred directly to canvas, intriguing differences occur between the sketches and the final image. The adult figure in Fur Traders Descending the Missouri appears younger on paper and, as seen elsewhere, the boy considerably less supple. A video presentation and catalogue essay delineate, in exacting detail, the process informing the image through the use of infrared technology. We are alerted to shifts in scale and perspective, and how portions of the original image have been excised, often radically. Most interesting—at least, for those of us who have long been puzzled by Bingham’s bear—is how the animal was streamlined into its existing state. The Met wants us to believe that “the underdrawing of the bear . . . puts to rest any remaining confusion regarding [its] identification.” But physical fact overrides original intention. That’s one odd creature. Who’s to say a glitch in specificity doesn’t add to the uncanny nature of the painting?
George Caleb Bingham, The Jolly Boatmen (1846), oil on canvas, 38-1/8″ x 48-1/2″; courtesy the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
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Trappers’ Return (1851) was Bingham’s attempt at recapturing the lightning-strikes-once frisson of Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. It would be folly to pin the flat affect of this version on a more readily identifiable bear, but the painting isn’t much more than expert. Though Bingham’s luminism is more consistently applied, magic is markedly absent—as it is, for that matter, in the rest of the river paintings. Pictures like The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846) and Raftsmen Playing Cards (1847), whose raffish goings-on and mythic vistas prefigure The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by some forty years, have their appeal. Still, even within the circumscribed purview of “Navigating the West,” Bingham’s classicist tendencies wear thin; an over-reliance on pictorial formula is readily discernible. Self-educated as an artist, Bingham achieved a certain level of skill, and his orchestrations of form—especially, the multi-figure compositions—are fairly deft, but orchestrations they remain. Poussin, whom the paintings bring to mind, uncovered paradise within immaculate artifice. For Bingham, artifice was misprised as truth. Rosy sentimentality prevails. The pictures cloy.
Bingham met with considerable success during his lifetime, not least because of the popularity of prints made after the river paintings (not all of which were authorized by the artist). His homegrown idylls are hard to deny. Who could resist the notion of a perpetually sunny day given to idle pursuits? That the way of life seen in his paintings was fast becoming a thing of the past was remarked upon by contemporary observers: Bingham’s ragamuffins were, as one writer had it, “doing almost too well” (italics in original). Be that as it may, the exhibition’s organizers have wisely cast their net on Bingham’s strongest work—examples of his portraiture, a few of which are on view at the Met, are stiff and amateurish—and they’ve done so in a manner that puts into relief Bingham’s not immoderate charms. If one canvas and one canvas alone constitutes his gift to history, so be it. The majority of artists are shuttled off to oblivion. Fur Traders Descending the Missouri guarantees that Bingham won’t meet that fate. “Navigating the West” reinforces the ghostly primacy of a peculiarly American masterwork.
© 2015 Mario Naves
The review originally appeared in the September 2015 edition of The New Criterion.