“In an age when the camera was not widely available,
Bingham provides an interesting insight into his fellow citizens in Missouri and their way of life.”
—Critique by Nicola Hodge and Libby Anson
THE EARLY YEARS
George Caleb Bingham was born on March 20, 1811, in Virginia to a prosperous family. When he was about eight years old, the family fell on hard times and lost their farm, which forced them to look for a new place to live. At that time, there was a land rush taking place in central Missouri, so the family settled on a piece of land near the Missouri River in the town of Franklin.
His mother set up a school, but floods in the Missouri River bottom forced them to pick up their belongings once again, and they moved to the other side of the river in Arrow Rock. Here, his mother reestablished the school while his father opened an inn. The inn proved to be important to Bingham’s development as an artist. The nine year old was inspired by a traveling artist who lived at the inn for a period of time after he tracked down Daniel Boone for a portrait. That artist also allowed Bingham to serve as his assistant for the portrait, further stimulating George’s interest in the arts.
RISE TO FAME
Bingham had no real career direction early in life, so he took some pretty diverse jobs. He worked for a while as a lawyer, then later as a minister, despite having no formal training in either. None of his career choices held his interest like painting. But in the early years, his passion for the arts didn’t pay the bills.
He pursued his dream of painting by working on portraits of wealthy residents of mid-Missouri. He had a good degree of success, so he decided to try his luck in a bigger city like St. Louis. His paintings were considered good, but there wasn’t enough work for him to make a decent living. Bingham decided he needed formal schooling to become a successful artist, so he headed to Philadelphia to attend art school. At school, he learned the skills he needed to paint realistic pictures of everyday life. It was this skill that would ultimately take him to the top.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
When Bingham returned from Philadelphia in the late 1840s, his passion was rekindled to make his mark in the art world. His first painting during this phase in his life turned out to be his best according to some art critics. Fur Traders Descending the Missouri defined his style and was the first step toward becoming a famous artist. He followed that piece with several others that finally brought him some much-needed money and a reputation as one of the greatest living artists of the day.
Bingham’s style changed during the Civil War. His changing attitudes about politics also changed the focus of his artwork, and changed the course of his life as well. He became increasingly active in politics and even served as the Missouri State Treasurer for a few years. His political activity practically erased his memories as an artist during his lifetime.
He died in 1879, several years after his last popular work of art. His popularity saw a resurgence in the 1930s when his most famous work, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The St. Louis Art Museum also honored the Missouri native with an exhibition that placed him in the history books as one of the all-time greats from the Show Me State.
*Bingham had a studio in the basement of the U.S. Capitol for a while, where he hoped to paint famous politicians.
*He went bald after a bout with sickness on a riverboat from St. Louis to Liberty. From then on, he wore a wig.
*His apparent win for a Missouri House seat was overturned by Democratic lawmakers that put his opponent into office. He defeated that same lawmaker two years later to claim the seat.