Thursday, November 6, 2014

Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River

The Amon Carter Museum of American Art is presents Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River, a dynamic exhibition featuring 16 iconic river paintings and 50 preparatory drawings by George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879) depicting boatmen at work and play on the inland rivers, most notably the Missouri and Mississippi. The first major Bingham exhibition in more than 25 years, Navigating the West signals the importance of western rivers to the culture and economy of the developing nation in the middle of the 19th century. It also provides an unprecedented look at Bingham’s artistic process as he navigated expectations about western identity and capitalized on an expanding American art market. The exhibition is on view October 2, 2014 through January 18, 2015; admission is free.

Bingham was the first artist to live most of his life west of the Mississippi River while still achieving national acclaim and prominence. As a young boy, he emigrated from Virginia to Missouri, where he became a prolific portraitist. Bingham was self-taught and relied on drawing manuals rather than formal academic study. He became an itinerant painter, traveling to nearby counties alongside the Missouri River and painting portraits of aspiring middle-class businessmen. Bingham had an astute grasp of the concept of the self-made man and created images of westerners as they wished to be seen.

To represent a country in economic and social transition, however, in the 1840s, Bingham would adopt the western rivers, the great engines of commercial and cultural significance, as fixtures in his work. His subjects appealed to eastern audiences yearning for romantic evocations of the West, and Bingham was keen to capitalize on such interest. But rather than perpetuate the stereotype of a region that was unsettled and dangerous, he evoked stable, harmonious environments, as seen in

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845)—the artist’s most highly regarded work—

and The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846), perhaps his most recognized composition. 

The first depicts a French fur trader and his Métis son bringing pelts to market downriver; the latter shows a crew of frolicking boatmen drifting downriver with a flatboat full of goods.

Bingham’s technique has never been revealed so completely as in this exhibition, which, alongside his river paintings, includes figure studies that the artist used for developing his compositions. For the first time, this exhibition provides a rare opportunity for visitors to see all of Bingham’s preparatory drawings in relation to their paintings. New technical studies undertaken for this exhibition, fully detailed and illustrated in the accompanying catalogue, allowed scholars to see beneath the surface of his paintings and gain an unprecedented understanding of his artistic process. 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 light, conservators were also able to identify numerous pentimenti, or changes on the canvas that are not part of the final compositions. Visitors will be able to see, through digital imaging, how Bingham removed elements such as a vertical mast and billowing flag in Fur Traders Descending the Missouri in order to achieve a balanced composition for his masterpiece.

Visitors to Navigating the West will also see the last surviving panorama of the Mississippi, nearly 8 feet high. Very popular in the 19th century, these giant scrolling paintings were forerunners to 20th-century motion pictures. They toured the U.S. and Europe, offering the experience of a steamboat trip on the broad expanse of the Mississippi in just a few hours and without the inconvenience of an actual journey. This example, painted by John J. Egan about 1850, has 24 scenes. While its fragility restricts the scrolling feature, one scene depicting a steamboat charging ahead on the Mississippi will be on display; all 24 scenes will be shown on a digital monitor in the exhibition.

After closing in Fort Worth, Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River will travel to the Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, Mo. (February 22–May 17, 2015) and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (June 17–September 20, 2015). 

Organized by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum, this exhibition was created by the curatorial and conservation team of: Claire Barry, director of conservation at the Kimbell Art Museum; Margaret C. Conrads, deputy director of art and research at the Amon Carter; Nancy Heugh, paper conservator at the Saint Louis Art Museum; Nenette Luarca-Shoaf, independent curator; Shirley Reece-Hughes, associate curator, paintings and sculpture at the Amon Carter; Janeen Turk, assistant curator of American art at the Saint Louis Art Museum; and Andrew J. Walker, director of the Amon Carter. 

Accompanying the exhibition is ahardcover companion book of the same name with contributions by Barry; Conrads; Heugh; Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, Alice Pratt Brown curator of American paintings and sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Luarca-Shoaf; Dorothy Mahon, conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Turk; and Walker. Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River, co-published by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum, contains four essays and 175 plates and illustrations.

More images from the exhibition:

George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879) 
Jolly Flatboatmen in Port, 1857 
Oil on canvas
Saint Louis Art Museum, 123:1944 

George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879) 
Raftsmen Playing Cards, 1847 
Oil on canvas
Saint Louis Art Museum, Bequest of Ezra H. Linley by exchange, 50:1934

Boatmen on The Mississippi