One spring a few years ago, an auction house on the east coast advertised a George Caleb Bingham portrait for sale, Julia George. Not listed in E. Maurice Bloch’s The Paintings of George Caleb Bingham: A Catalogue Raisonné (University of Missouri Press, 1986), and with drab colors and a lifeless face, I questioned whether the artist of the sad young woman was actually Bingham. I called the auctioneer, who told me that, according to the family, the source of the attribution was a curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, from an exhibit in 1953. I contacted the archives of the museum. Staff promised to send me a copy of any information on the portrait.
When I looked more carefully at the probably posthumous portrait of the young woman, I saw similarities with Bingham. To be certain, I compared the painting with examples of the work of Bingham’s students and colleagues, but ruled out each one. Using Morellian analysis, I compared details in the photograph of Julia George with details of known Bingham portraits from the late 1860s and early 1870s. The more I tried to rule out George Caleb Bingham, the more the details began to convince me he might be the artist. The background blue in Julia George was the same shade as the background blue in Bingham’s 1867 portrait of Roma Wornall (Bloch #368) (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri). The consistency and amount of paint on the brush and the same quick strokes were all evident.
By descent in family.
Julia George was born about 1850 in Shelby County, Kentucky, to James W. George (1805- 1888) and Frances Booker (1805- after 1880). Her father was a wealthy plantation owner. In 1860, when Julia was 10, the family lived in Guadalupe, Texas. Her father, J. W. George, owned real estate valued at $15,300, personal property, at $41,400. He had diversified from farming into cattle. The year 1870 found J. W., his wife Fannie, and two sons, M. B. and John Edward, in Kansas City, Missouri. Father and sons worked as cattle traders. Julia was not listed in the census. She died about 1869. Her biography confirmed that the portrait was probably created posthumously.
Date of Execution
Both the biography of the subject and the hairstyle indicated a date of execution circa 1869.
A few days after the east coast auction of Julia George was over, I received the 1953 exhibit checklist from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Ancestor Exhibit, 1953. Julia George was Catalog #89.
In 1953, the curator in charge of the Ancestor Exhibit had recently been promoted to the position. According to the catalog entry, he attributed the painting to E. L. Herzinger, a St. Louis artist, which contradicted the words of the auctioneer. I had not yet seen the portrait in person and, of course, researched the little-known artist.
Emile Louis Herzinger (1838-1887)
Emile Louis Herzinger (1838-1887) was born in France in 1838. He arrived in the United States aboard the ship Othello on September 13, 1858, with his father, Louis, 48, and his mother, Virginia, 46. Two years later, he and his mother lived in St. Louis, where he worked as an artist. He was also known as a photographer and a colorist of photographs. As an artist, he used a variety of mediums: charcoal, watercolors, gouache, pastels, colored crayons, and oil. When he registered for the Civil War draft in April 1864, he gave his occupation as mechanic. He paid a substitute to fight in his place.
Also in 1864, at the Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair, Herzinger exhibited oil paintings of Governor Hamilton R. Gamble and a Sister of Charity. In 1867, at the St. Louis Fair, he and photographer John A. Scholten (1829-1886) won first prizes in miniatures on ivory, colored crayon drawings, and in photographs in oil, watercolors, and porcelain. Exhibiting alone at the 1869 St. Louis Fair, Herzinger led in the categories of historical painting and miniatures on ivory. During the 1870s, according to biographers, Herzinger fell into artistic oblivion in the 1870s. He died in 1887 and was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery.
I found images of Herzinger’s work through the Internet at the Missouri Historical Society, the Missouri Botanical Gardens, the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, and the Frick Reference Library. Nearly all the images have copyright restrictions, but for research only, I could enlarge and compare them side by side with Julia George. I found Herzinger’s brush more heavily laden with paint and his brushstrokes more labored than Bingham’s, who had a quarter century’s more experience. Many of the heads of Herzinger’s subjects tilted to the left or right. Bingham, with his well-known devotion to geometric composition, aligned his subjects’ heads squarely on their shoulders. Even if the sitter posed with a slouch before the camera, Bingham corrected the posture and straightened the head.
Herzinger worked from a studio in St. Louis, Missouri. The George family lived in Kansas City, on the other side of the state, and only a few miles from Bingham’s studio. Herzinger signed his work. I could not find a single example where he did not. Julia George, like most Bingham portraits, is unsigned. Both connoisseurship and logic caused me to conclude that without the benefit of technological advances in 1953, the newly appointed curator made a mistake. In my opinion, Emile L. Herzinger was not the artist who painted Julia George.
Brother: Richard Booker George
Within the Ancestor Exhibit catalog from 1953 were two other family portraits. One was of Richard B. George (1839-1862), an older brother of Julia. The checklist noted:
….”was murdered in cold blood by Bob Carpenter whilst sitting on a fence at sunrise about the 13th of September 1862 near Scottsville, Ky. whilst in the rebel army…”
Richard B. George’s portrait must have been posthumous as well. At the start of the Civil War, Richard returned to Kentucky. He enlisted with the 1st Kentucky Cavalry, commanded by General Benjamin Hardin Helm, a brother-in-law of Abraham Lincoln. I located the family members who inherited Richard B. George. The photo they sent me showed the glare of a flash, but the painting appeared to be yet another work by George Caleb Bingham, just as the family remembered. Later I found a black and white image in the public domain.
Like Julia George, and other recently discovered Bingham paintings from the same period, Sarah Ann (Sallie) Elliott (Mrs. Henry A. Neill) and Louisa Ann Conwell (Mrs. John Q. Watkins, Richard Booker George depicted a person no longer living whom Bingham may never have met or barely knew. To paint a portrait, he would have had to rely on a photograph. All of the subjects in face forward, in the way people sat before a camera. But a photograph was a mechanical likeness. Families who could afford one sometimes desired a large oil on canvas portrait to immortalize a lost loved one. These three are, in my opinion, examples of George Caleb Bingham’s post-war portraiture, from photographs, of subjects he had never met or barely knew. Given the circumstances, he accomplished his sad task masterfully. In my opinion, the Kansas City curator in 1953 confused Bingham’s portraits of posthumous subjects based on photographs with Herzinger’s specialty of coloring photographs.
Mother: Frances A. Booker George
A third George family portrait in the Ancestor Exhibit of 1953 was of Julia and Richard’s mother, Frances A. Booker (Mrs. James W. George). In the east coast auction catalog, I had discovered an image of that portrait underneath the photograph of Julia George. It was, for some of us who know Bingham’s work well, an NBB, No-Brainer-Bingham. The auction house retained the attribution, “Unknown American Artist.”
- Staff at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art divided the catalog for the Ancestor Exhibit of 1953 into two volumes. The first volume listed 103 portraits by various artists. The second volume listed 28 portraits by George Caleb Bingham. When E. Maurice Bloch visited Kansas City while compiling his original Catalogue Raisonné, only the second volume was shared with him. Not knowing of the existence of the three portraits previously attributed to Bingham in the first volume, he did not examine them.
- When Julia George quietly went up for sale at auction on the East Coast, where George Caleb Bingham is often unknown or unappreciated, the auctioneer opened the bidding with a statement, “We think this may be by George Caleb Bingham.” Desultory local floor bidding kept the numbers low. Unjustifiably, the hammer price continued to deflate Bingham portrait auction values until the sale of John Quincy Adams in December 2015.
- The George Caleb Bingham portrait of Julia George’s mother went to the auction block under her maiden name, Frances A. Booker, with the creator identified as “Unknown American Artist.” Fortunately, an art connoisseur rescued it from oblivion. Frances A. Booker (Mrs. James W. George) is now a proud possession of a Bingham connoisseur who recently discovered that Fanny George is a distant ancestor. To this convoluted story, there is a happy ending.
- In 1850 James W. George owned 18 slaves, according to the 1850 Slave Schedules of the United States Census, District 1, Shelby, Kentucky, M432, page 716, column 2, lines 22-40. In 1860, he owned 36, according to the 1860 Slave Schedules of the United States, Guadalupe, Texas, M653, page 12, lines 16-40, and page 13, lines 1-6; “Household of J. George, Seventh Census of the United States, August 25th, 1850, District 1, Shelby, Kentucky, Roll: M432_218; Page: 291B, lines 26-33; Eighth Census of the United States, “Household of J. W. George,” July 26, 1860, Guadalupe, Texas, Roll: M653_1296; Page: 308, lines 25-35; “Household of James W. George, June 6th, 1870, Ninth Census of the United States, Kansas City Ward 3, Jackson, Missouri; Roll: M593_782; Page: 591B, lines 1-4; “Household of J. W. George,” Tenth Census of the United States, June 14/15, 1880, Salt Fork, Saline, Missouri; Roll: 716, page 16 , lines 41-50, and page 17, lines 1-6.
- United States Customs Department, New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957: Ship: Othello September 13, 1858; National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Microfilm Serial: M237; Microfilm Roll: 187; List Number 865, Lines 1-3. Within public records, there is some confusion. His parents may have been named Isaac and Francine, and the family may have originally arrived in the United States in 1838. Due to the disparity in the names, his mother’s consistent use of “Virginia,” and the similiarity of the names of Louis and Louis Emile (later Emile Louis) in father and son, I chose to use the names from the 1858 arrival and the ensuing censuses.
- United States Census Bureau, Eighth Census of the United States, “Household of Louis E. Herzinger,” Ninth Ward, St. Louis Missouri, June 25, 1860, NARA Roll: Roll: M653_655; page 323, lines 23-24.
- Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn, Pioneer Photographers from the Mississippi to the Continental Divide: A Biographical Dictionary, 1839-1865 (Stanford University Press, 2005), 318.
- Missouri Provost Marshal, Provost Marshal General’s Bureau; Consolidated Enrollment Lists, 1863-1865); NARA), Records of the Provost Marshall, Record Group: 110, Vol. 3, page 199, line 47.
- Palmquist, op. cit.
- Herzinger signed three paintings from 1863 that were included in the Ancestor Exhibit. The similarities the curator saw could be the effects of painting over and painting from photographs.
- From #92, Richard B. George (1839-1862), of the checklist of the catalog of the 1953, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.
- National Park Service, Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database, https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/search-soldiers.htm Records for the 1st Kentucky Cavalry show the unit near Scottsville, Tennessee in September 1862.