Eliza Bingham’s Death

On this day in 1876, George Caleb Bingham lost his wife of 27 years.  Just six days before Eliza Bingham’s death, the artist wrote his friend James Rollins: I surely may trust that God, in his infinite Mercy may restore to me my wife… if God shall roll away the mental cloud under which she suffers, she will rejoice… “ [1]

Eliza Bingham

Eliza was only 45 when she died at the Fulton State Hospital, a mental asylum, on November 3, 1876. When she married in 1849, she was 21 and  an accomplished pianist. After the Binghams’ return from Germany in 1859, she was appointed the first director of the music department at the Baptist Female College (now Stephens College) in Columbia, Missouri, She reared Bingham’s children from his first marriage, Horace (1841-1870) and Clara (1845-1901), and their own child, Rollins (1861-1910).

George Caleb Bingham, Mrs. George Caleb Bingham (Eliza K. Thomas) (210)
George Caleb Bingham, Mrs. George Caleb Bingham (Eliza K. Thomas), 1849
Oil on Canvas, 35 x 27 inches
Private Collection

Her husband portrayed her near the time of their marriage (above). She  was probably the model for Thread of Life, 1862. (Please click the link to see the zoomable image.) The latter painting, now owned by the State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia. The palette of Thread of Life is unique in Bingham’s oeuvre. A popular German painting of the body of St. Catharine carried by angels, created by Heinrich Mucke, a professor at the Dusseldorf Academy when the Binghams lived there, may have been a major influence.  

Heinrich Mucke, Die hl. Catharina wird nach ihrem Märtyrertod zu Alexandrien von Engeln nach dem Sinai getragen, 1830
Old National Gallery, Berlin, Germany

Both artworks would have remained in the artist’s home or studio during his lifetime.  With Eliza’s death, Bingham could not rejoice in her recovery as he had hoped. But, if she was indeed the inspiration for Thread of Life, would he, a religious man,  have rejoiced at the thought of her in heaven, picturing her much as he had portrayed her a decade and a half earlier?

(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2019
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[1] George Caleb Bingham, “Letter to James Sidney Rollins,” October 29, 1876, Jefferson City, Missouri, in  Lynn Wolf Gentzler, editor, Roger E. Robinson, compiler, “But I Forget That I am a Painter and Not a Politician”: The Letters of George Caleb Bingham (The State Historical Society of Missouri and Friends of Arrow Rock, Inc. 2011), 417.

About Patricia Moss

Patricia Moss is an art historian, or art detective if you will, who solves mysteries of 19th century American portraits. She located nearly 70 of Bingham’s lost portraits, a feat acknowledged by the Smithsonian’s Research and Scholar’s Center. From expertise with portraits of George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), she developed skills that evolved into a comprehensive system based on the scientific method that conforms to the legal and ethical standards of art authentication. Moss served as a guest curator for the Bingham Bicentennial Exhibit, “Steamboats to Steam Engines: George Caleb Bingham’s Missouri: 1819-1879,” (March 10-September 8, 2011) at the Truman Presidential Museum and curated the opening exhibition, “George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History,” (September 2013 –), Jackson County Art Museum, Independence, Missouri. She is also the principal researcher for Fine Art Investigations.
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