The Most Popular Item…

The most popular item in the exhibition, George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History, at the Jackson County Art Museum in the Truman Courthouse in Independence, Missouri, was the original brooch worn by Mary Snell (Mrs. Priestly Haggin McBride.)  The brooch is in the display case on the table underneath her portrait.  It is a tiny little thing, too small for a good photograph. You’ll have to come see it.  The room in which the portrait hangs is the smallest in the Jackson County Art Museum, but during the opening tours, nearly always someone stood in front of the table, glancing back and forth between the box and the painting. 

George Caleb Bingham, Mary Snell McBride, 1837 at the Jackson County Art Museum in Independence, Missouri, with the original brooch she wore in the painting in a display case on the table beneath her portrait

George Caleb Bingham, Mary Snell McBride, 1837, at the Jackson County Art Museum in Independence, Missouri, with the original brooch she wore in the painting in a display case on the table beneath her portrait

It was a foreman with the courthouse remodel crew who had the idea to display the brooch on a vintage table.  There were plenty of tables in storage from the courthouse’s original 1933 furniture, but in the rush in the final weeks before the grand re-opening, no one had time to go over to Surplus and search for the proper table.  As time was running out, Steve Noll, executive director of the Jackson County Historical Society, came to the rescue.  He found a vintage table of the perfect size with gold trim on the top surface that framed the display box.  

George Caleb Bingham,  Mrs. Priestly Haggin McBride (Mary Snell), 1837,  McClain Collection

George Caleb Bingham, Mrs. Priestly Haggin McBride (Mary Snell), 1837, McClain Collection

 

1836 Morning and Evening Dress, University of Washington Digital Libraries Fashion Plate Collection, COS069

1836 Morning and Evening Dress, University of Washington Digital Libraries Fashion Plate Collection, COS069

Of course, people appreciated the portrait itself. When I looked at it carefully, I realized that George Caleb Bingham painted it a bit earlier than 1837/1838 as E. Maurice Bloch stated.  The reason is that the voluminous gigot sleeves and the delicate pelerine over Mrs. McBride’s dress match fashion plates of 1836 more than fashion plates of 1837 when the width of the sleeves diminished and the pelerine all but disappeared. Even on the frontier as soon as fashion publications arrived, a woman of means, such as Mary McBride, directed her seamstress to create copies of the latest styles.  Adjusting the date to account for slow mail delivery, the dress would have been made no later than 1837, which date the painting 1836/1837.  

La Belle Assemblee, June 1837, Los Angeles Public Library Visual Collection, Casey Fashion Plates, Vol. 18 plate 88

La Belle Assemblee, June 1837, Los Angeles Public Library Visual Collection, Casey Fashion Plates, Vol. 18 plate 88

 

By 1836, Bingham was working from a studio in St. Louis and viewing the work of other artists. He saw paintings in the homes of the city’s residents and the European decorations at the new cathedral.  These observations, and probably some training, enabled him to paint the 31-year-old Mary McBride with soft lines and life-like skin tones.  Note the attention to detail in the links of the chain she wears around her neck and Bingham’s skill in creating a transparent blue ribbon over a white collar ruff.  This new dating speaks to the artist’s determined perseverance to gain eminence with his art.  

Mary Snell was born February 13, 1805, in Scott County, Kentucky. By 1827 she lived in Boone County, Missouri, because marriage records show she wed Priestly Haggin McBride there on February 6.  She was 22 when she wed Priestly Haggin McBride (1796-1869), nine years her elder.  Her younger sister Julia Ann (1810-1884) married Priestly’s brother Ebenezer Walker McBride (1803-1867) three years later.  Bingham painted all four individuals.  The two couples, along with a third brother, James Haggin McBride (1814-1864), and his wife Mildred Barnes, were founders of Paris, Monroe County, Missouri. Mary and Priestly had three children: Sarah Adeline, Mary, and John.  Mary Snell McBride died in Columbia, Missouri, at the age of 49.  Though the written record on Mary McBride is sparse, Bingham’s visual record gives us a sense of the woman — and of the women of her time and position.

(c) Patricia Moss fineartinvestigations at gmail

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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