Missouri painter George Caleb Bingham shaped the way the nation saw life on the frontier. His work spanned politics, civil war discord and rowdy riverboatmen, and his genre paintings of 19th century river life are in many major national art collections.
Within the next three years, all of Bingham's nearly 600 known paintings will be accessible online and freely available to the public.
“Anyone who wants to study his work will have this resource,” says Kansas City art appraiser Rachael Blackburn Cozad, who has undertaken the task of ushering Bingham's Catalogue Raisonné into the digital age.
“He is the most well-known, the most respected 19th Century American artist from the state Missouri — in fact, he’s known as ‘The Missouri Artist.’ People who are working on anything relating to Bingham will be able to use it: museum curators, scholars who want to study his work, collectors, kids doing research papers. It goes on and on.”
Each work will be documented with a high-resolution color photograph, a physical description, the painting’s origin, provenance, a history of exhibitions and a full bibliography. Cozad has launched The Riverbank Foundation, a non-profit organization, to help create the online resource.
Historically, catalogue raisonnés are large, expensive books, often held by research institutions and not easily accessible to the public. But that is changing in the digital age, and Cozad wants to democratize the resource. She is building on the foundation of a 300-page volume by Professor of Art History E. Maurice Bloch, published by the University of Missouri Press in 1986.
Cozad flips through the book's black and white plates looking for a painting of a young Sarah Helen Rollins from 1837. It takes a minute or two to land on the right page. A girl with a confident expression looks out from a poorly-rendered black and white plate.
“She’s my favorite,” Cozad says with a laugh. “What’s amazing about this painting is that she is approximately life size. She’s 60-inches high, so she is about the size of an 11-year-old girl. For a current 11-year-old girl to take a look at this frontier fashion statement, can you imagine how thrilling that would be?”
Back in 1986, reproducing the paintings in color was prohibitively expensive and the black and white renderings convey scant detail. This new online database will provide an important update: The digital version of the same painting on Cozad’s computer reveals cloud-like puffy blue sleeves, a bright orange apron and stiff white pantaloons.
Putting entire collections of art online was once controversial. But the museum community now accepts the fact that the exposure cultivates new audiences, says Melissa Wolfe, curator of American art at the Saint Louis Art Museum.
“When museum collections were just begun to be put online, people thought, 'Oh my gosh no one is going to come to the museums because they are just going to look at paintings online,’” Wolfe says. “It’s old news by now that every single study showed that just the opposite happens. Putting things online has only in fact increased attendance and created a broader engagement with artwork.”
Bloch wrote four authoritative books on Bingham. The artist signed few of his paintings, and 26 additional ones have been uncovered in the years since Bloch’s death in 1989.
“That was the primary reason for putting everything online,” Cozad says. “That way you could add the new paintings and if more surface, which they probably will, we can just add them very easily.”
While 80% of Bingham’s work is portraits he made of prominent Missourians, he is best known for his idealized scenes of life along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Steamboats were common by the time Bingham reached the peak of his artistic powers, but he chose to paint the river as he knew it best, from his boyhood memories.
Most importantly, that was the work that found an eager audience back East.
In 1845, he sold "Fur Traders Descending the Missouri" to the New York-based American Art-Union, a subscription-based organization whose goal was to enlighten and educate the American public. The sale earned him $75, the most he’d ever received for a painting (Bingham commonly sold his portraits for $25).
The painting, which depicts a fur trapper paddling downriver in a dugout with his son and a captive bear cub at the prow of the boat, is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Bingham arrived in the Missouri territory as a young boy with his family in 1819. The Binghams eventually settled in the town of Arrow Rock, Mo., where his childhood home is now a state historic site. According to Wolfe, there were few resources for an aspiring artist in 19th century Missouri. Art schools and museums were rare in what was then considered the west.
“Most of the artists, once you get west of Eastern Pennsylvania, were pretty much self-taught or had some itinerate artist go through who showed them how to do it and they just learn on the road more or less, so Bingham is very typical in that,” says Wolfe. “There isn't an art academy in Arrow Rock. There isn't anything there.”
But Bingham was determined to improve his skills. He honed his craft by sketching prints of old masters and he traveled to nearby cities for inspiration. During a visit to St. Louis in 1836, Bingham wrote a letter home to his wife expressing his uncertainty and doubt.
Though I am frequently under the influence of melancholy when my prospects appear dark and gloomy before me, yet I have never entirely despaired, and the determination to do my utmost to rise in my profession has ever remained strong in my mind. I am fully aware of my many deficiencies, and though I generally succeed in pleasing others, it is but seldom that I can please myself — in fact no work has yet gone from my hands with which I have been perfectly satisfied. Very few are aware of the mortifications and anxieties which attend the work of the painter, and the toil and study which it requires to give him success and raise him to distinction. — “George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist,” by E. Maurice Bloch.
Wolfe says Missourians embrace Bingham as their own but are often not aware of his national prominence as an early American painter.
“His best river paintings have the sense of the haze — you know, the moist air that's over the river and the light as it kind of comes through that moisture,” Wolfe says. “I think that is just what he remembers. He's painting from something he knows really, really well and it shows.”
CJ Charbonneau agrees. As a research and appraisal assistant Madison Group Fine Art Appraisals, she has immersed herself in logging and updating data about Bingham's work. One painting in particular caught her fancy.
“I really love 'The Jolly Flatboatmen,'” Charbonneau says of a 1846 painting now on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
“The dancing, all the atmospheric effects in the back and all of the detail, the skin hanging from the edge of the flatboat the supplies. They look like guys you might want to hang out with on a Saturday afternoon.”
Flatboatmen were a common sight on Missouri rivers of the 1830s, floating with their cargo to ports down river. Generally known as unsavory characters, they were notable for drinking, carousing and a willingness to fight both man and beast. In his painting, Bingham cleaned them up and made them more palatable for a wider audience, and the American Art-Union distributed engravings of his idealized Jolly Flatboatmen to 10,000 subscribers in 1847.
Charbonneau says the online project opens up innumerable possibilities in bringing Bingham’s work to new audiences of all kinds, not just for academic research.
“Because it is so rich in information is why it translates to a gazillion different audiences,” she says. “You might just want to get on there and find a high-res image that you could download into your sixth grade history report. There are so many ways you can geek out on this stuff, which you can tell I kind of do.”
From Cozad’s second story home office, you can almost see the edge of Union Hill Cemetery where Bingham is buried with his third wife. Cozad says sometimes she thinks fate has led her to this years-long endeavor.
“Union Cemetery is right there out the window and I walk by George Caleb Bingham’s grave almost every day sometimes more than once,” she says. “Call it kismet, call it whatever you want but there’s something powerful I think about knowing that his legacy is right there.”
When the project is finally finished, his legacy will also be everywhere there's internet access.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter @juliedenesha.