George Caleb Bingham and the Art Detective

George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879)

George Caleb Bingham lived at the edge of civilization after his family moved from Virginia to Missouri Territory in 1819. He saw the native peoples, the trappers and fur traders, and the fishermen. He saw the men who worked the steamboats, the lighters, the wood boats. He saw camp meetings, political stumping, elections, and the verdicts of the people.

In his artistic isolation on the frontier, with only grey woodcuts in books for training and a smattering of instruction from an itinerant portrait painter, he pushed himself to become one of America’s major artists. He created his own color palette. He traveled from Missouri to Washington, D.C., Virginia, Philadelphia, New York, New Orleans, and Colorado. He eventually studied at one of the world’s most prestigious art schools of his time, the Dusseldorf Academy. He painted presidents, longshoremen, and everyone in between. He was honest and moral, intelligent and articulate. He believed in and worked for a strong, unified central government. When politicians abused the principles he cherished, he was unforgiving.

The artwork of this truthful witness to history breathes with life today. He is most remembered for his genre work such as  Fur Traders Descending the Missouri and The County Election. Genre is usually defined as “scenes of everyday life,” yet the French term genre means of the people – ordinary, everyday people. George Caleb Bingham preserved “the people” in drawings and immortalized them in oil. His convictions and wit permeate his genre work.

Even while creating masterpieces, George Caleb Bingham had to earn a living. “To make the pot boil,” he painted portraits. Creating a likeness of an individual was easy for him.  In his time, portraiture was the bottom rung on the ladder to success. So,  though he took pride in his portrait work and knew some of it to be quite good, he generally dismissed it. Yet sometimes, what is taken for granted has value in retrospect.

The Art Detective: Patricia Moss

I am an art detective who lives at the edge of the earth – five short blocks and a quick walk through scrub forest and dunes, to the place where the earth ends and the ocean begins. Here, scattered among vacation homes and hotels, nature survives untamed: deer, elk, eagles, pheasants, gulls, pelicans, and sea lions. Most of the day I work at home on-line. I love the immediacy of both the natural and the virtual worlds.

I live here because my heart craves the sea and my lungs, the ocean air. But my roots remain in tree-covered hills, creeks, rivers and bluffs at the center of the nation. I believe the real history of America’s heartland, the place where the nation came of age, is found in art, especially in paintings by 19th century artist George Caleb Bingham.

George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879)  and I have been together off and on for most of the art detective’s life. As soon as I could walk, the Missouri Artist’s depictions of the socially prominent people of a century ago surrounded me at every visit to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Missouri. Back then, the pictures of people that hung from the walls and in the hallways held no interest. But, children unconsciously absorb far more than they or the adults around them realize such as color, composition, technique, and style.

Nelson-Adkins Museum of Art
Kansas City, MO
Original Entrance

In 1999, I wrote an article about the past revealed in Bingham’s portraits, but when the publisher wanted the illustrations, I found over a third had been “lost.” They weren’t where they were supposed to be. Owners had died; museum had misplaced records. For that missing third, I managed with woodcuts and old photographs, but the loss hurt. These portraits are artistic and historic treasures.

For nearly 20 years, I worked whenever I could to verify the location of all of Bingham’s portraits. I encouraged owners to record the location with the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Inventory of American Painting (IAP). To date I’ve located nearly 70 and am responsible for many being updated at the IAP.

While most art historians concentrate on Bingham’s genre work, I focus on his portraits. I study people. Behind Bingham’s likenesses are the stories of the people of America’s heartland.

The blogs on this website contain a series of stories about finding the portraits, the lives they reveal,  and the Stories Behind the Portraits of George Caleb Bingham.

Patricia Moss is an art historian, or art detective if you will, who solves mysteries of 19th century American portraits.