Leisure and Light

John Haber
in New York City

George Caleb Bingham and the River

Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America

For more than thirty years, an artist kept returning to an American river as a scene of leisure and light. No, not the Hudson of the Hudson River school, although George Caleb Bingham fits with any American art in search of what he called "freshness, vigor, and truth." As a postscript, posthumous portraits from earlier in the century seek their own renewed vigor, even as American families felt the loss.

For "Navigating the West," the Met brings together all but one of Bingham's seventeen surviving paintings of the Mississippi and Missouri. (The last is still in the White House.) They pay tribute to the central north-south axis of a divided nation and to an idealized portrait of its people. George Caleb Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1845)They share the greater stillness of the finest nineteenth-century American art, and they liberated Bingham himself from a starchier and stagier realism. The most popular, The Jolly Flatboatmen, spawned hundreds or even thousands of prints in his lifetime. Yet they make clear how little he was concerned for the Hudson River School's sense of place—or even for the river.

Savagery to civilization

George Caleb Bingham had every right to ambivalence about Missouri. Born in 1811, he was a stranger there himself. His family left Virginia when he was a boy, when his father lost a small fortune in an attempt to bail out a friend. They regained ground, only to lose it again when his father died. Instead of prosperity and sophistication, he found only hard work on the family farm, with his mother a harsh taskmaster. His attachment to the river began in hours of escape there, coveting quiet and sunlight. His attachment to art began as an escape from that life, too, in turning out signboards and inexpensive portraits.

He was already looking elsewhere. Success to him meant Philadelphia and New York, where he wanted his portraits to make his name. Missouri meant to him a backwater and a slave state, the result of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. A self-portrait from the late 1870s shows him pen or brush in hand, but with the firm gaze and fleshy cheeks of an accomplished politician. And so he was, in stubborn opposition to slavery. Early on, he stumped for losing Whig candidates for president, his signboards giving way to banners, and he ran successfully for Congress from Saint Louis in 1848. His one famous portrait sitter was the last president before the ascendance of the Democrats, John Quincey Adams, who hated the results.

Easterners never did accept Bingham as one of their own, but they were eager for news of an expanding nation. He found a ready market for genre scenes, starting in the 1840s. William Sidney Mount had already taken Dutch genre scenes outdoors, into a contemporary American landscape, and now Bingham did much the same. One of his favorite subjects was local elections. The other was the wilderness and the river. He never quite made up his mind which he liked best, but time has spoken for him.

He did not leave shore all at once. Mississippi Boatman from 1850 shows hardly a trace of the river, behind the boatman's dumbfounded expression and wooden boat. An earlier painting depicts a Native American in the woods as a noble savage, with the accent on savage (much as a contemporary, William T. Ranney, earned fame with a wild-eyed trapper threatened by an unseen injun), but that makes Bingham sound more racist and less of two minds than he ever was. The curators, Elizabeth Mankin Kornhause with Stephanie L. Herdrich, describe the artist's view of life as the passage "from savagery to civilization"—but like Huck Finn on his raft, these people are not exactly begging to be "sivilized." Befitting a regional artist, much of Bingham's work has ended up in regional museums, but a stunning example from around 1845 belongs to the Met's American wing. Originally titled French Trader and Half-Breed Son, meaning half Native American, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri shows a boat with room for just three, against earth and sky all but dissolved in sunlight.

The mist transports the scene out of time, while the boat set parallel to the picture plane belongs to a space all its own. The river bank comes forward just enough to single out the main actors. A boy at the painting's center adds a note of color, a winning smile, and a calming pyramid. A small black bear chained to the boat at left, more like a house pet than a future fur coat, adds a half-comic silhouette and a more disturbing shadow on the water. No one talks or acknowledges another's presence. Not even the tradesman's oar or light reflecting off long ripples in the water punctures the silence.

The work affirms conquest of the river and the West. For a Whig then, as for a progressive now, a transportation artery is infrastructure, the site of essential public and private investment. From left to right, one can imagine a passage from the bear's sheer animal existence to a half-breed and then to the white trader. Then again, from right to left, one can imagine the passage from a cranky and quizzical old man to a self-possessed young man and then to a renewal of the bond between domesticity and nature. Maybe Bingham never did overcome his prejudice or ambivalence as much as he thought. Neither, though, did Civil War America.

A theater on the river

He never overcame, too, a certain conservatism when it came to his art. Early work has the porcelain flesh tones and simplified color contrasts typical of American portraits. Bingham also learned from German Romanticism, like Richard Caton Woodville before him, with its clear light and genre scenes. He had his own version of Washington Crossing the Delaware, although hardly as iconic as the one by an actual German American, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. He left the country altogether in the 1850s, first for the Louvre and then for Düsseldorf—where he painted a second version of The Jolly Flatboatmen. He declared the city's art superior to the old masters.

Bingham could have painted that version anywhere, because he remained less a landscape painter than a studio artist. He rarely drew from workmen rather than friends, one person to a sheet—in brushed ink that takes on a fine line. In drawings he focused less on shading or psychology than on consistently casual poses, which he then transferred directly to canvas by drawing over them a second time. The Met displays nearly half of his estate's more than a hundred sheets. They allowed him to recombine scenes, in alternate narratives or alternate versions. They also allowed him to continue his work from the East coast on his return to America.

They allowed him, too, to convey a view of the river without deciding on where. The Hudson River School captured the particulars of landmarks and weather, even when lending them epic proportions. Bingham never troubled with identifiable places along the Mississippi or Missouri. He never followed them south either, beyond his home state, like Frederic Edwin Church to the Andes. His landscapes are, first and foremost, American stories. They are not the stories of individual Americans, so much as the comedy and drama of America.

It is an America on the brink, between Jacksonian democracy and civil war. Bingham gives his varied cast care over the nation's future, as in paintings of watching over cargo. Yet he also wants to relieve ordinary men, and they are always men, from labor. They burst into music and dance, as one more triumphant central pyramid. They play at cards or stare alone into the light. In a third and final version of The Jolly Flatboatmen, from 1877, he empties the boat of cargo altogether.

The river is broad enough to accommodate their theater. In views upstream, perspective obliges the boat to broaden outward toward the viewer, like a thrust stage. No wonder Bingham emptied it of cargo. For all his idealization, his theater matters because he cared for its characters and the light. His additive method gives each actor his own space, and one remembers them separately—much like the fur trader, son, and bear. One remembers a man leaning on a pole, a boy leaning on his arm, or the loose lid of a stovepipe hat.

A single moment exaggerates a dancer's gestures, but also lifts him out of time. That timelessness and the light ally Bingham with the Hudson River School after all. He still found time for painting along with politics, taking to the frontier for a view of Pike's Peak in 1872. Back home shortly before his death in 1879, he joined the University of Missouri as its first professor art. Yet almost everything dates from the twelve years before Düsseldorf. In finally escaping home, he almost lost touch with the river he knew best.

As if alive

In "My Last Duchess," the duke unveils a portrait of the woman that he has had killed, as a fitting testimony to her beauty and his terrifying authority. Yet the poem, by Robert Browning, also boasts of an ideal that anyone will recognize—the power of art to reach beyond the grave. "There she stands as if alive." Those portraits by Rembrandt, Anthony van Dyck, or John Singer Sargent that seem to capture a sitter in the act? Their subjects died, too, long ago. And the illusion of life may itself pay tribute to the dead, as what the American Folk Art Museum calls "Securing the Shadow."

For America in the first half of the nineteenth century, bridging life and death had a special urgency. Cholera, dysentery, and other diseases were matters of everyday life, and roughly one in four children died in infancy. Art helped parents not just to remember the dead, for they could hardly help it, but to deal with the pain by restoring a kind of life. Specialists in child portraits like William Matthew Prior or John Brewster, Jr., served that need. So did specialists in gravestones, miniatures, and silhouettes as the shadow of a life, only they all had to work with a constraint that Rembrandt never knew. Their sitters were already gone.

This had its advantages. One never had to deal with a sitter as impatient as Benjamin Franklin in Paris. One never had to repeat, like Sally Mann in her memoir as a photographer, "Hold still." Yet it also meant working from death casts and measurements—and it meant working fast, before the coffin was sealed and its contents began to decay. It meant, too, giving the dead the color of life and inserting them, upright, in the company of family or a landscape. Michele Felice Cornè's Death of William (photo by Kathy Tarantola, Peabody Essex Museum, c. 1807)No wonder the introduction in 1839 of daguerreotypes dealt a blow to the genre in painting, quite apart from making things so much easier. Death could no longer shake its ghostly pallor.

The posthumous portraits have all the marks of folk art. They run to frontal poses, awkward expressions, heavy shadows, and shallow spaces. Except for Prior, the artists have mostly faded from memory themselves. This is not, though, outsider art, for all the chill it inspires akin to madness. People earned a living at this, including women like Michele Felice Cornè. Often they had known loss themselves, and as mainstream an artist as Charles Willson Peale painted his wife holding her child against bed linens as gray and cold as the daughter's flesh. Joseph Whiting Stock knew the fragility of life in a different way, as a painter confined to a wheelchair.

The curator, Stacy C. Hollander, brings a context in competing media—plus the invitation to write your own epitaph on slate. (Most visitors cannot resist an irony foreign to the paintings.) One learns how painters found stock markers for mortality—in plucked flowers, cut thread, ships at sea (for the passage to the afterlife), a sunset, one sock off, or the blue associated with the Virgin Mary. When Ambrose Andrews paints children at shuttlecock, their very stiffness reeks of death, but their paddles also point to the heavens. One learns, too, how commissions paired children dead and alive, with no easy way to know which is which. People wanted them in their homes, Hollander notes, as "palpable presences."

They were surely eerie presences, often at life size, then as now. Scenes tend to efface distinctions between sitters, beyond a favorite doll or pet. They efface the circumstances of death as well—hardly what a family cared to remember, even if medicine then had had more of a clue. Yet they still speak to the stories that art tells or refuses to tell. Maybe English speakers no longer refer to still life as nature morte, but Surrealism's postmodern heirs today favor a theater of life then called tableau vivant. By messing with the distinction between nature and culture, art is still a matter of life and death.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 20, 2015, "Securing the Shadow" at the at American Folk Art Museum through February 26, 2017.

 

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