bingham self-portraitCredit: Public DomainNostalgia is nothing new. It may seem strange to us in the twenty-first century, but people of every age have pined for the simpler life of times gone by, when a person could go with the flow of existence, free and untroubled. How easier things were back then, more so than the present, from where the future is a great blank, with progress perceived as much as a threat through either ‘needless’ change or a reverse from enlightenment, depending on your perspective. What is true of 2015 is as true for 1845, when Americans looked on fondly towards a more natural way of being in rural surroundings, as opposed to the big cities appearing across America, as the Republic sought to expand westwards towards the Pacific. Artists are as much of their time as anyone else, and sought to express the conflict between past, present and future, while also maintaining a professional career, with families of their own to feed and clothe. One such artist who met this challenge was George Caleb Bingham (1811 – 1879), and his painting Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1847) captures a moment both of flux and stillness, where painter, subjects and viewer meet and face each other as Bingham asks us in which direction we wish to travel.

Born in Franklin, Missouri, at a time when the state represented America’s westernmost fringe, the young George Bingham’s life altered course in 1820 when the prominent portraitist Chester Harding, visited Franklin looking for commissions (in those days, it was common for an artist to travel for work). Bingham served as an assistant to Harding, and knew then he wished to become an artist. With little in the way of materials, tutoring or subject matter, Bingham taught himself to draw by sketching whatever he could around him, while helping to support his family after his father died of malaria in 1823.

At the age of seventeen, Bingham traveled to Philadelphia and obtained fresh subjects: drawings and prints to copy from, and small sculptures and antiques; aside from a brief spell at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts, Bingham remained self-taught. After an unprofitable time as a professional portraitist in Washington DC, Bingham returned to Missouri to capture the scenes familiar to him from childhood.

The age-old human wish to return to ‘the good old days,’ coupled with the gradual increasing of the tensions that would lead to the Civil War, meant overtly political or social paintings were unpopular with the public and unlikely to sell. People were still enraptured to the settlers’ tales of Daniel Boone and the novels of James Fennimore Cooper, whose popular ‘Leatherstocking’ series of novels were set a hundred years in the past. A frustration perhaps to Bingham, active in the Missouri political scene as well as its artistic community, yet this also helped him to explore social issues in a more oblique, and more interesting way, while retaining a distinctive American flavor to his work.

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri then is a work which strikes us in four directions at once, from left to right, and reverse, and from front to back, and reverse. Bingham encourages us to look at the painting from left to right, along a sloping triangular movement, typical of the classically influenced painters of the time. First, we see a small black creature tied to the prow of the boat; this is a bear cub, and not a cat as many modern viewers suppose. Then we have a young man, and an older figure, paddling with the current against which the viewer is reading the picture. The older man is the father to the youngster, who rests upon a covered pile of furs which the two are taking eastwards, to modern, urban America, to sell.

Foreshadowing this pose, and the larger configuration of the boat and its crew, is the small outcrop of rock in the lower center of the picture. The young man’s shadow leads towards the wake of this rock and yet also leads us back into the painting, into the patchy light of the early morning mist, already evaporating under the sun. Unlike some works by his fellow Luminists, Bingham’s extraordinary use of light isn’t just for decorative purposes, but adds a psychological dimension to his work.   

It is early morning then, and the start of a new day, when life can either start over, or the day's business can commencesteamboat yellowstoneCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.  The foreground is brighter, from which we view the scene, in our moment of the present. The background is more lost to the mists of time. The two men look at us as we look at them, with the younger man looking the more relaxed (his shadow leans towards us), with the older man less content at what he sees (his pipe smokes drifts back towards where they have been). Our present is clear to us, but not to the two men, for in Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, Bingham painted a scene not common to 1845 but of twenty or more years beforehand. Such methods of transportation seen in this painting, and other works of Bingham’s, such as The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846) and Raftsmen Playing Cards (1847) were already considered old-fashioned, if not redundant, by the 1840s when the steamship had come of age.

Yet these men are not receding into the past, they are vivid and alive, their clothes crumpled but bright, their personalities alive and unbowed. Perhaps Bingham is saying something about the nature of time or memory that these men and their work will remain in our world even if we do not remember them; their contribution to American life, though outdated, is yet fresh and valuable as that which we make to life today. As two times pass, they meet as equals; we travel left to right, the boatsmen travel right to left, joining for one brief yet lasting moment.

Bingham is also relating a social story. The father is a white man, but his son has a slightly darker skin tone, and if we look carefully, we can make out painted markings on his face. The rather unfortunate original title Bingham gave his work, French Trader – Half-Breed Son (changed by the painting’s exhibitors in New York), tells the story explicitly. It was not uncommon for foreign river traders, or voyageurs, to marry Native American women, uncaring of any social prejudice held against Native Americans by white Americans. Critics Hugh Honour and John Fleming say of this boy: “the ‘Indian’ has the hairstyle and body paint of an Osage,” a tribe who originated in modern-day Kentucky before moving westwards to the borderlands of eastern Kansas and western Missouri. One can argue that the only ‘true-blooded’ American of the three is the bear cub, but intriguingly, we cannot tell whether the bear looks towards or away from us, and there is also something sinister in its elongated shadow, with perhaps the chain intended as irony.

Seal SenateCredit: Wikimedia Commons/IpankoninOne notable element of the picture often lost on modern viewers is the older man’s cap, known as a liberty cap or a Phrygian cap, a symbol of freedom and liberty. Such caps were traditionally worn by men of antiquity who were once slaves but had won their freedom; over time these hats came to represent the cause of freedom. Today, we see such caps in the Seal of the US Senate and the Seal of the US Department of the Army. In wearing such a cap, the older man is making a powerful statement on the nature of his personal liberty. The cap, made of brimless felt, leans neither left nor right, but towards the viewer, to suggest freedom is not a preserve of east or west, but of the present, and an ongoing constant. An appropriate comment for a momentary fluid tranquility, where opposites might and are found the same, where only an empty past is lost to the present.

Bingham found much success for the ten years or so after Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, but left the US for two years to live in Düsseldorf, Germany (a common destination for American painters back then) to improve his technique. By the time he had completed his own European tour in 1858, Bingham’s unique skills had dissipated among a morass of influence and the overt sentimentality popular in German painting of the time. Bingham’s best work now lay behind him, although he continued to earn a good living from art. As his painting declined, so his political career took off, and having already served in the Missouri House of Representatives, Bingham became Missouri State Treasurer from 1862 to 1865, and in 1874 became Kansas City’s first Chief of Police. Bingham, his health often precarious due to a debilitating case of measles in childhood, died in 1879 shortly after his appointment as a professor of art at the University of Missouri.

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri is available to view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.