George Caleb Bingham Exhibition

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

poster for George Caleb Bingham Exhibition

This event has ended.

One of the foremost American genre painters of the 19th century, George Caleb Bingham is best known for his compelling depictions of frontier life along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on June 17, Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River is the first major Bingham exhibition in more than 25 years. It will bring together for the first time 16 of his iconic river paintings. This extraordinary series chronicles the transformation of America’s western wilderness and established an indelible image of the West for the nation. More than 40 of Bingham’s masterful preparatory drawings depicting fur traders and boatmen at work and play on the inland rivers will provide an unprecedented look at Bingham’s artistic process. Bingham’s early masterpiece, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845), from the collection of the Metropolitan, will be featured in the exhibition.

Bingham (1811–1879) was the first major American artist to be based west of the Mississippi River. He would pursue the duel careers of artist and politician, serving in elected positions for four decades. His family moved from Virginia—where Bingham was born—to the Missouri Territory in 1819, several years before it became a state. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, Missouri remained at the edge of the American frontier, a departure point for explorers, adventurers, and pioneers heading west. Largely self-taught, Bingham relied on drawing manuals rather than formal academic study for instruction. He began his career as an itinerant portrait painter, traveling to counties along the Missouri River portraying middle-class citizens.

Following this early period, Bingham focused his paintings on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, celebrating their critically important role as major arteries of transportation and agents of cultural and economic change for the country. He also identified and codified a wide variety of Western character types—boatman, card player, dockhand, fiddler, fur trader, raftman, and weary traveler, among others—and brought them to national attention. Through his paintings, he promoted romantic evocations of the West to a primarily urban, eastern audience.

A highlight of the exhibition will be Bingham’s most highly regarded painting, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. In this classically balanced, strongly horizontal composition, a French trapper slowly paddles his canoe down the river; his half-European half-Native American son leans across their cargo, and a black bear cub is leashed to the bow. The artist’s brilliant distillation and paring down of compositional elements create a startling stillness.

The exhibition will also feature the artist’s most recognized composition—The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846)—which portrays a harmonious environment around a crew of frolicking boatmen playing music and dancing as they drifted downriver on a flatboat full of goods.

The exhibition will provide the most thorough study ever undertaken of Bingham’s working methods and techniques. For the first time, visitors to this exhibition will have an opportunity to view all of Bingham’s preparatory drawings in relation to their paintings. New technical studies carried out for the exhibition—which are fully revealed and illustrated in the accompanying catalogue—allowed scholars to see beneath the surface of his paintings. Bingham often traced his drawings directly onto his prepared canvases, and indentations and registration marks on the drawings and canvases confirm this finding. Using infrared reflectography, conservators at the Metropolitan and elsewhere have been able to identify numerous pentimenti (changes the artist made on the canvas that are not part of the final compositions). Through digital imaging, visitors will be able to see how Bingham edited his compositions by removing elements of his underdrawing in Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, in order to achieve a balanced composition for his masterpiece.

A related work—Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi River, which is the last surving panorama of the Mississippi, painted around 1850 by John J. Egan, another Missouri artist—will be shown on a digital monitor, as a slow-moving scroll across 24 scenes of the 348-foot-long work.

The Museum’s renowned collection of paintings from the Hudson River School (around 1825–75) and a panorama by John Vanderlyn, Panoramic View of the Palace of Versailles (1818–19), located in galleries nearby, will allow visitors to compare paintings inspired by two distinct waterways and two versions of a popular 19th-century entertainment, respectively.

Location: The Erving and Joyce Wolf Gallery, The American Wing, Gallery 746



from June 17, 2015 to September 20, 2015

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