Art, a Tool for the Politician

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George Caleb Bingham was a mid-nineteenth-century American artist who began his career as a portrait painter, but soon found interest in landscape and genre painting. Although the center of great art at that time was on the east coast, his illustrious and extensive representations of the Missourian frontier had qualities in reach with the giants, including Thomas Cole (Bryant, 449). Eventually, he was named “the Western Artist” (Kline). What is quite interesting about Bingham as a character was his skill as an orator and engagement in politics—certainly uncommon for artists at that time. Between the years 1840 and 1856, he campaigned for the Whig Party. In those years, he made several paintings including banners for his party. His artworks served as a medium to propagate his political ideas. These include Landscape with Fisherman (1845-50) in the Colby College Museum of Art (figure 1), which, although simple in its composition, manifested his nationalist sentiment in complex ways.

Bingham developed his passion in genre painting in the early 1830s in Missouri. As an admirer of the untouched natural beauty and unique scenes of the frontier, he easily found success in works depicting these landscapes (Kline). Other than art, Bingham was acutely aware of the significant events in the political sphere, and “felt impelled to be something more than an armchair observer” (Kline). As a result, between the years 1840 and 1856, he was campaigning for the Whig party. Immersed in both politics, as a leader in party activities and art, he eventually achieved balance as his famous paintings had a touch from both. In fact, as historian Keith Bryant remarks, the art of government in the frontier area was “extremely lively” and it “…provided him [Bingham] the subject matter for his best known paintings” (Bryant, 450). His famous political paintings include the Election Series paintings (1853-54), Lighter Relieving the Steamboat Aground (1847), and the postbellum painting Order No. 11 (1861). Landscape with Fisherman was painted to similarly carry a political message.

Asega fig2Lighter Relieving the Steamboat Aground painted around 1847 (figure 2) offers thinly veiled criticism on the goings on of the leading political party. Looking at the painting, one sees a crew idly sitting on a boat. Looking farther into the scene, one sees a steamboat that has gone aground on a shoal. As Bingham was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives around 1846, this boat in “distress probably alludes to a key political issue of the day” (Kloss and Bolger, 107). There was also a lack of federal funds on improvements of navigation over the western rivers. The Whig party, on the other hand, had the primary goal of improving navigation by obtaining federal funds, and consequently facilitating trade on the western rivers through the removal of snags, shoals, and sawyers (Kloss and Bolger, 107). However, the Democratic President James K. Polk had vetoed the River and Harbor Bill that his political opponents, the Whigs, had issued. Motivated and infuriated by Polk’s action, Bingham thus used Lighter Relieving the Steamboat Aground to express political opposition.

Aside from using paintings as a medium for political criticism, Bingham conveyed the prosperous democracy he observed in the United States through paintings as well. We can see this in the Election Series paintings, a set of four paintings that included County Election (figure 3), Canvassing for a Vote, Stump Speaking (figure 4), and The Verdict of the People. Interestingly, unlike his political critique in Lighter Relieving the Steamboat Aground, in the Election Series Bingham did not attempt to “elevate or ridicule,” but instead wanted to just paint the scene of grassroots American politics of his day (Bryant, 461). Thus, in a way, he displayed the democracy he was passionate about. Among the four paintings, figure 3 is the only one to depict an activity on Election Day. On that crucial day, residents of every age and social class, though excluding the African Americans, convene in one place to make a decision for the common good. Overall, the “benign blue sky and the well balanced composition,” art historians have argued, “are meant to convey a sense of the orderly workings of democracy, even in the presence of misbehavior” (Reynolds House).

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Moreover, in the center of the painting a sign in the distance reads “Union Hotel.” This, of course, was in reaction to the “debate over slavery [that] threatened to tear the country apart.” Yet, preserving the Union, he forwards, outweighs all other political concerns (Reynolds House). In figure 4, Stump Speaking, an orator gives what was then known as a stump speech, or a political campaign speech. Behind him sits another candidate. Bingham wrote to a friend describing his composition: “I have placed behind him [the orator] … [an] opponent, who is busy taking notes, and who will, when his turn comes, make sophisms fly like cobwebs…” (“Letters of George,” 172). Overall in this painting Bingham tries to present the practice of democracy and particularly its associations with free expression.

In Landscape with Fisherman, he presents a person sitting and fishing near a calm river in a landscape that extends far into the mountains. Through manipulation of compositional elements such as spatial organization, light, and color, Bingham conveys a political message. The fisherman, primarily, carries the implicit patriotic message Bingham is trying to articulate. Bingham’s choice of vivid colors of red, white, and blue for the apparel of the fisherman together with the lighting and spatial organization reveal the importance of this figure. For one, the hue of the colors make the fisherman stand out from the hazy hue of the surrounding landscape. Moreover, the fisherman serves as a symbol of the American people, as the colors he wears symbolize the American flag. Sitting on a flat bulge, the figure gets the sole attention of a viewer, while also receiving full sunlight. With an established importance, the figure of the fisherman sits on a line dividing different areas of lighting in the painting. The landscape beyond him is well lit while that between the viewer and the figure is gloomy. The symbolism, and so the artwork’s grand message, lies here. The gloomy landscape represents the unstable frontier in the mid-nineteenth century. The bright landscape that extends from the fisherman and well into the mountains, on the other hand, expresses Bingham’s fantasy of a bright prospect for his country.

Among several paintings with patriotic or political intent and completed at the time when Bingham had fervent interest in democracy, Landscape with Fisherman does much more than merely depict a beautiful landscape. Bingham certainly is a prime example of an artist acting as a politician.

–Yohannes Asega

Works cited

Bryant, Keith L. “George Caleb Bingham: The Artist as Whig Politician.” Missouri Historical Review 59, no. 4 (July 1965): 448-463.

Kline, Fred. “George Caleb Bingham – Artist of Missouri and the American Frontier.” http://georgecalebbingham.org/bio.htm (accessed April 24, 2014).

Kloss, William, and Doreen Bolger. Art in the White House: A Nation’s Pride. Washington, DC: White House Historical Association in cooperation with the National Geographic Society, 1992.

Rollins, C. B., ed. “Letters of George Caleb Bingham to James S. Rollins, Part II.” Missouri Historical Review 32, no. 2 (January 1938): 164-202.

Reynolds House Museum of American Art. “The County Election.” http://www.reynoldahouse.org/collections/object/the-county-election (accessed April 25, 2014).

Illustrations

Figure 1. George Caleb Bingham, Landscape with Fisherman, ca. 1845-50, oil on canvas, Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, ME.

Figure 2. George Caleb Bingham, Lighter Relieving the Steamboat Aground, 1847, The White House Collection, Washington, DC.

Figure 3. George Caleb Bingham, County Election, 1852, oil on canvas, Saint Louis Art Museum, Sait Louis, MO.

Figure 4. George Caleb Bingham, Stump Speaking, 1853-54, oil on canvas, Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, MO.

Comments

  1. Cate, indeed it is quite interesting how he was able to express political messages and sharp criticisms through simple looking paintings of human activities or landscape. Generally, his works were accepted as metaphoric political comments. But reactions to his work would usually have come from genre/landscape artists of his time, as the works had a wider showcase in the artistic scene than in the political scene, except perhaps for the Election Series paintings. And the Election Series paintings were neutral in their content, so politicians of his time wouldn’t have any polar reactions. It would be interesting to look over correspondences, newspaper articles, and such things to see if the paintings helped him or his party. If you are interested I recommend the book “The Painting and Politics of George Caleb Bingham” by Nancy Nash (http://books.google.com/books?id=MdA100cRU0wC).

  2. Erin, the paintings I discussed fall in the second phase of his career (see preceding comment). Interestingly enough, while he was painting political paintings, he also had contrasting moments, one which you would expect from a politician. That is, as a politician, there was a time his party didn’t take office. As art was one of the few ways he could practice in politics, he painted “Lighter Relieving the Steamboat Aground” to express his dismay at the doings of the party holding office. But then came election time, and he was celebrating the practice of democracy of his age in “County Election” and “Stump Speaking.” So there was a strong connection between his political attitude and his paintings.

  3. Harry, we can chiefly divide his political and artistic career to at least three phases—the time before he started campaigning (before 1840), the time he was painting political paintings (1840-1856), and the time after his visit to Europe (1856). As I have discussed in my analysis, Bingham started out as a portrait painter before he started out as a genre/landscape painter. So during the first phase, his works were primarily portraits. And in the last phase, on the year 1856 he moved to Europe to study in France, then in Germany before returning to Missouri in 1859. While still there, he worked on commissions from the government. Also, after coming back, he painted a couple of paintings about the Civil War. He took the road of a politician while still painting even few years before his death. So when doing politics, painting was his serious hobby; and, when not running for office, painting about politics was his job.

  4. I was fascinated by the analysis of colour in Landscape with Fisherman; I would not have connected the colours of the fisherman’s apparel to a greater metaphorical message. This idea, coupled with the observations on lighting, delightfully developed into a commentary on the chaos of the American Frontier, creating a wonderful point that subtleties can speak magnitudes to a careful observer. Along the same lines as Harry, I would also like to know more about the history of Bingham’s political career. From the pieces you feature here, it seems his work is rather divided. In Landscape with Fisherman, Bingham seems to have a rather optimistic attitude towards the future of the Midwest. However in Lighter Relieving the Steamboat Aground, his message seems to at least be decidedly disgruntled, if not entirely pessimistic. I wonder if there are any connections between certain experiences in political career and the differences in his attitude. Altogether, this is a thought provoking analysis on the capabilities of art and painting.

  5. What I was mostly interested about was how much political messages and criticisms the scenic and romantic landscapes of Bingham had. At first glance, many of Bingham’s paintings look like simple American-Romanticism paintings that depict the wonders of nature. Yet, through your further research, I was able to learn that many of these paintings were actually criticisms of the American politics such as Landscape with Fisherman and Lighter Relieving the Steamboat Aground. What I may want to know more maybe on if Bingham was always and stayed a political painter. Before he ran for the Whigs, did he paint different kinds of works? What about towards the end of his life? Was he still a painter or did he take the road of a politician. But outside of that, you certainly analyzed and researched your original painting in further depth that I was able to fully understand what Bingham tried to convey through his work.

  6. It is so interesting how these paintings can be not only beautiful but also hold significant political meaning. I like the use of artistic elements such as the steamboats as symbols for historical events. It is interesting that he painted both scenes that celebrate and scenes that ridicule politics at the time. I wonder if there was any response to his paintings from other politicians at the time, and if the response to his works helped him politically. Looking at Landscape with Fisherman for the first time I couldn’t pick out any deeper meanings just based on the contents and composition of the painting. It is surprising how much the artist is able to convey in a single scene.

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