Van Gogh •
George Caleb Bingham
George Caleb Bingham
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George Caleb Bingham was born in Piedmont country, in Virginia, where he remained until
1819 when a turn in fortune forced his family to move to Franklin, Missouri. In 1823, his father died and the Binghams moved to a farm outside the city, where the sons labored under the stern eye of Mrs. Bingham. Whenever he could, Caleb retreated to a bluff near the farm where he studied the fascinating life on the Missouri River. At the age of sixteen, he was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker in Columbia, Missouri, an occupation that led to sign painting. By the time he was twenty-two, Bingham was traveling up and down the river, painting portraits in a vigorously drawn and linear style, with strong color applied in large areas, a manner that he probably acquired from the ancestral portraits he had seen in settlers' homes.
His art was appreciated locally, but he did not receive the acclaim he had hoped for when he opened a studio
in St. Louis, in 1835. Bingham realized that he must move from Missouri in order to become a better artist, and after studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, he moved to Washington in 1840, again to paint portraits. He returned to Missouri for the 1844 presidential election campaign of Henry Clay versus James Polk. Bingham favoured Clay but the banners he painted for him did not prevent his losing the election.
The artist then began the series of genre pictures of river life that led to his being regarded as the historian of Jacksonian democracy. In his river paintings, we see only male figures. They are never at work, but dance, make music, play cards, fish, or hold conversations. Never disturbed by the presence of women, they relax against generalized river backgrounds that recede mistily and glow smokily in the distance. His paintings generally present a composition based on the pyramid, its base being the lower horizontal. His foreground figures stand quite free and are sharply delineated. He laid out his compositions carefully, and drew his figures from life, realistically and often humorously, using friends for models and changing faces to suit his needs. In crowded political canvases, his figures are grouped in horizontal planes in alternating bands of light and shade. His finest work, done between 1845 and 1855 when he painted the people and country he loved best, is fresh and vigorous, truthful and enthusiastic. He later went abroad to Düsseldorf, where he exchanged his formal methods of composition and lighting for a more sophisticated European style that only weakened his natural artistic strength.