Stories Behind the Portraits: Eliza Thomas Bingham

George Caleb Bingham, Elizabeth Keller Thomas (Mrs George Caleb Bingham, 1849
Oil on Canvas, 30 x 25 inches
Private Collection

George Caleb Bingham’s portrait of his second wife, Eliza Thomas Bingham (1828-1876), went up for auction this fall. I did not mention it publicly because I did not want to be seen as shilling for it. Perhaps I should have. I had no involvement in the sale. Because I believe Bingham portraits have irreplaceable artistic and historic value, I had  hoped for a high hammer price for the painting. This particular portrait is a touching one. Eliza was a pretty young woman of 20 when she posed stiffly for the artist, who was 18 years her senior, and a famed artist. She would be the mother of his two children, Horace, 8, and Clara, 4. No wonder she looked a bit like a deer in headlights. The red chair nearly swallows the chaste young maiden in white. Is there symbolism here?

Eliza was the third child and first daughter of Reverend Robert Stewart Thomas (1805-1859) and Elvira Johnston (1809-1871).  Her name is often given as Eliza K. Thomas.  I believe that the “K” stood for Keller. Keller was the maiden name of her maternal great-grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Keller (Mrs. Jacob Spears)  (1763-1837) and of her mother’s older sister, Eliza[beth] Keller Johnston (Mrs. David McClanahan Hickman) (1802-1827), who died the same year Eliza was born.  She was reared in the home of a scholar of English literature. She must have been well-educated, well-spoken, and an accomplished pianist.

Though literally volumes have been written about her husband, only pages speak of the woman who was his wife for nearly 30 years.  Her tragic death overshadows much of her life.

Bingham depicted his wife in an earlier painting in what may have been an engagement picture.

George Caleb Bingham, Mrs. George Caleb Bingham (Eliza Keller Thomas). 1849
Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches
Present location unknown

She is presumed to be the model for The Thread of Life, 1862Her husband portrayed her as a mature regal personage. She was 34.

George Caleb Bingham, Thread of Life, 1862
Oil on Canvas, 27 x 22 inches
State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia

The painting is reminiscent of a work by Heinrich Mucke (1806-1891), a professor at the Düsseldorf Academy, that the Binghams would have seen in Germany a few years before.[1]

Heinrich Mucke, The Body of Saint Catherine Borne to Mount Sinai by Angels, 1836
LandesMuseum, Bonn, Germany

In December 1859, the Baptist Female College (later Stephens College) in Columbia appointed Eliza Bingham the head of their music department. On September 21, 1861, near the time Bingham painted his most ethereal work, Eliza gave birth to their child, James Rollins Bingham (1861-1910). Three years later, in June 1861, she watched as Clara Bingham (1845-1901),  the step-daughter she had reared, marry Thomas Benton King (1838-1931), the son of a governor. She grieved when her stepson, Horace (1841-after 1870), disappeared on his way to California in the early 1870s.

After a noted surgeon diagnosed Eliza’s left lung as “very much diseased,” Bingham wrote the governor of Missouri on October 7, 1876, requesting a leave of absence from his position as the state’s Adjutant General in order to take her to a warmer climate. He concluded the letter with the words, “her life is more valuable to me than my own.” The diagnosis was quickly questioned, but the thought of her imminent death “shocked” Eliza and caused an abrupt personality change. Within days, Bingham committed her to the Fulton State Hospital, the first public mental institution west of the Mississippi River.  Less than a week later, she was dead from “a temporary aberration of the mind due to religious excitement.”[2]

To honor the memory of the talented, intelligent woman who shared her life with the artist politician for nearly 27 years, and for the tender beauty of the portrait, the painting deserved a better hammer price.

  1. The Binghams lived in Düsseldorf from 1854 until summer 1859.[]
  2. George Caleb Bingham Letter to Governor Charles H. Hardin,”  October 7, 1876, Lynn Wolf Gentzler, ed., and Roger E. Robinson, compiler, But I Forget That I am a Painter and Not a Politician,” (State Historical Society of Missouri and Friends of Arrow Rock, Inc., 2011),412-413; George Caleb Bingham Letter from George Caleb Bingham to James S. Rollins, October 15, 1876,” Gentzler, 414-415; Fair Play (St. Genevieve, Missouri)November 9, 1876, page 2, column 4.[]