Bringing together George Caleb Bingham's river paintings and his river-related drawings and prints, this exhibition presents these masterworks in a new light—as part of Bingham's larger consideration of the river and life along it.
Beyond the genre subjects, the exhibition includes Bingham's early portraits featuring rivers and even a riverboat captain, allowing for an examination of the ways in which proximity to the Missouri and Mississippi rivers shaped the artist's career and art production even before he turned to his iconic river workers. The importance of early Missourians as Bingham's first audience and earliest supporters will also be explored.
Bingham's artistic process is another topic highlighted within the exhibition. Conservation research investigating the surfaces of Bingham's drawings as well as the underlayers of paint on his canvases has brought to light stunning new understanding of the artist's composition practice and allows the viewer to experience the artist's mind and hand at work. Bingham drew multiple versions of some of his figures, trying out adjustments to the figures' poses, expressions, and gestures. Bingham even re-used a number of his drawings, tracing the figure on the back side of the paper in order to have a model in a "reversed" pose. He transferred the drawn figures from the sheet of paper to the canvas. These drawings on the canvas are now concealed under the paint layers, but using a process called infrared reflectography, the research team was able to view them and learn even more about the ways the artist edited himself and worked up to his final composition.
George Caleb Bingham, American, 1811–1879; Jolly Flatboatmen in Port, 1857; oil on canvas; 47 1/4 x 69 5/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase 123:1944
Two of Bingham's river compositions—In a Quandary
and Jolly Flatboatmen
—also were circulated as prints. Having these prints made allowed Bingham's work to reach a much wider audience than the paintings could have ever done on their own. In fact over 9,500 prints of the Jolly Flatboatmen
subject were produced. Impressions of these prints will be included in the exhibition as well.
After a two-year absence, the recently restored Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley
will return to the Art Museum as part of the exhibition. Painted around 1850, at the same moment as Bingham's masterworks, the Panorama
also depicts life on and along the western rivers. The 348-foot-long painting includes 25 scenes, and it is anticipated that the Panorama
will be advanced twice during the course of the exhibition so that three of the scenes will be displayed during the exhibition's run.
Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River
is co-organized by the Art Museum and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and it will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in June. The 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.