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George Caleb Bingham

Missouri-based painter known for his depictions of life on and along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, landscapes, and scenes related to the democratic process

George Caleb Bingham

George Caleb Bingham was born in August County, Virginia, on March 20, 1811, the second of seven children born to Henry Vest and Mary Amend Bingham. In 1819, after suffering a financial setback in Virginia, the family moved to Franklin, Missouri, where his father established an inn and a tobacco factory, bought farmland, and became a civic leader, and his mother established one of the first schools for girls west of the Mississippi River. Showing an interest in drawing from an early age, George learned the basics of portrait painting at the age of nine by watching Chester Harding, a guest at the inn, finish a portrait of Daniel Boone. His father died of malaria in 1823, and his mother moved the family across the Missouri River to Arrow Rock soon after. Although she sold the inn and tobacco factory, she kept the school open, and even hired an art teacher for the school so George and other kids to take lessons.

In 1827, Bingham became an apprentice to a cabinetmaker in Boonville. While learning that trade, he also began painting portraits of friends, and by 1838 he had a successful portrait studio in St. Louis. To refine his techniques, he studied briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1838, after which he visited the National Academy of Design exhibition in New York City. From 1856 to 1859, Bingham and his family lived in Europe, first in Paris (where he fulfilled a lifelong desire by studying the Old Masters at the Louvre) and then in Düsseldorf, Germany (where he took part in the local school of painting).

Although he earned his living painting portraits of well-to-do Missourians, Bingham first gained widespread acclaim for his depictions of life on and along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, including Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845), Boatmen on the Missouri (1846), and Raftsmen Playing Cards (1847). He also painted scenes of everyday life, landscapes, and historic events, and scenes related to the democratic process (political campaigning and elections). Works in these genres include Shooting for the Beef (ca. 1850), Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap (1851–1852), The County Election (1852), and View of Pikes Peak (1872).

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri
Fur Traders Descending the Missouri

The County Election (1852)
The County Election (1852)

One of the few full-time artists to serve in elected political office, Bingham was elected to the Missouri General Assembly in 1848. He only served a single term in that body, but subsequently served in several other state and local political offices.

Bingham's last major work was a complete departure from all of his previous works, both in subject matter and composition, primarily because it arose from his anger over what he saw as a travesty of justice perpetrated by Union forces. On August 21, 1863, notorious Confederate sympathizer William Quantrill and his band of raiders attacked the free-state stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas, killing over 180 citizens and burning most of the city to the ground. In response to Quantrill's raid, General Thomas Ewing, Union commander of the Missouri District, issued "Order No. 11," giving notice to all people living in several Missouri counties that they would be evicted from the territory unless they could prove their loyalty to the Union. Kansas residents praised Order No. 11 for curbing guerrilla raids by Southern sympathizers, but the order was unpopular in Missouri. Then serving as Missouri State Treasurer, Bingham, himself a Union sympathizer, wrote to General Thomas Ewing saying: “If you execute this order, I shall make you infamous with pen and brush." When Ewing followed through with his order, Bingham made good on his promise, with the result being Civil War: as realized in the Desolation of Border Counties of Missouri during the operation of "General Order No. 11," issued by Brigadier General Ewing, from his Head Quarters, Kansas City, August 25, 1863 (1865–1870).

General Order No. 11
General Order No. 11

In 1877, Bingham was hired as one of the first professors of art at the University of Missouri, but by then he was in poor health and he saw very few students before his death, which came on July 7, 1879.

Bingham was married three times and had a total of six children; only two of his children survived him, however. His first wife was Sarah Elizabeth Hutchinson (1819-1848), whom he married in September 1836. Together they had five children: Isaac Newton (1837-1841), Nathaniel (1840), Horace (1841-1869), Clara (1844-1901), and Joseph Hutchinson (1848). Elizabeth died in 1848. On December 3, 1849, Bingham married Eliza Thomas, who bore him one son, James Rollins (1861-1910). Eliza died in 1876. On June 18, 1878, Bingham married Mattie Livingston Lykins, a widow and family friend from Kansas City, who survived him.

George Caleb Bingham Website
http://www.georgecalebbingham.org

SEE ALSO
Daniel Boone
Louvre
William Quantrill

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The Robinson Library >> Fine Arts >> Painting >> United States

This page was last updated on 07/07/2017.