He was one of America’s greatest regional painters, and next month he turns 200. George Caleb Bingham captured the life of fur trappers and steamboats along the Missouri River, and the horrible civilian cost of the Civil War.
A self-taught painter who grew up in Missouri, Bingham witnessed the state transform from an underpopulated frontier into a thriving center of commerce and agriculture. The above painting, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, was painted in 1845 and captured a scene that was already becoming a thing of the past. Individual fur trappers, generally French, were being replaced by larger companies. His Luminist style and the little details like the cat earned him a lasting reputation. Actually, many researchers think it’s a bear cub, but it looks like a cat to me!
Bingham was a realist. The boy in the picture is half French and half Indian, a common enough sight in those days but not something that “respectable” society wanted to talk about. The original title for the painting was French Trader, Half-Breed Son, but the American Art Union changed the name when they put it on display. Yet another example of a powerful institution whitewashing America’s past.
Bingham was born 20 March 1811 and Missouri is planning several exhibitions and events. Kansas City’s famous Nelson-Atkins Museum will have an exhibition of his work from March 9 to December 2. At The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, there’s another Bingham retrospective from March 10 to September 9. There are several other events taking place to mark the bicentennial. You can find an entire list here.Perhaps his most famous painting is Order No. 11, Martial Law shown below. This order by Union General Thomas Ewing in 1863 forced civilians out of their homes in several Missouri counties bordering Kansas. It was in retaliation for a Confederate guerrilla raid that destroyed Lawrence, Kansas, killing 200 mostly unarmed men and boys. General Ewing knew that secessionist civilians helped the guerrillas, so he decided to move them out of the region. Bingham was a Union man and was as shocked as anyone else by the Lawrence Massacre, but he thought punishing civilians was unjust. His painting was an instant success and has become a permanent symbol of Missouri’s bitter Civil War. It will be on display at the Truman Museum exhibition.